Friday, December 28, 2007

Of Harvests and Rivers

In the late Thirties, a few U.S. composers moved on from Modernism (or maybe they backed away), revisiting sounds more native to America. Aaron Copland wrote El Salon Mexico, then Virgil Thomson was tapped to create folksong/hymn-based soundtracks for a couple of documentary films, the scores for which in turn persuaded Copland to go further, creating his so-called "Americana" sound, lovely and expansive, evoking the wide open spaces of America, to be memorably and most melodically found in Fanfare for the Common Man, the Billy the Kid and Rodeo ballets, and then his ineffable Appalachian Spring.

Others followed along too, each in his own fashion--Roy Harris, Lou Harrison, William Schuman, et al, plus Charles Ives, rediscovered and increasingly studied. I admire the music of all these composers, but Copland remains my favorite, his triad simplicity practically the total antithesis of complex, world-in-each-symphony Gustav Mahler, whose massive, brooding works are my other personal touchstones. Think The Tender Land Suite vs. Mahler's Symphony No.4, or Copland's Old American Songs against Das Lied von der Erde. Apples and oranges? I'd say more like grapes up against watermelons!

But what matter if the music pleases, if it captures the imagination and soothes the soul? And those documentary scores by Thomson too are delectable green grapes (so to speak)--The Plow That Broke the Plains (from 1936) and The River (1937), Pare Lorenz's famous visual essays in support of President Roosevelt's New Deal projects.

I first heard Thomson's scores on a Vanguard record 40 years ago, conducted I believe by Leopold Stokowski. In the years since, that disc disappeared, was replaced, and then newer recordings added--I remember especially an Eighties album including a third Thomson suite with the others, Neville Mariner conducting one of the esteemed Los Angeles ensembles. But I never had the good fortune actually to see the films themselves. They had become historical landmarks lost to public view...

Until recently, when enterprising Classical label Naxos not only recorded new versions of the two suites (Angel Gil-Ordonez leading a group called the Post-Classical Ensemble), but synched them up against new prints of both documentaries, which were then at last made available once more, late in 2007, on Naxos DVD 2.110521, complete with informed commentary by era survivors. And viewing The Plow a week ago immediately reminded me that I had forgotten to list (in blog posts from the end of August) one film I proposed back when I was writing for King Screen Productions--a poetry-and-music documentary on Washington State's wheat harvest.

Using a few poems written by my now-deceased friend Robert Sund (from his book Bunch Grass, I think; this was over 35 years ago), I scripted--meaning roughed-out for a cinema verite approach to the filming--a series of shots that would recreate "A Day in the Wheatfields": elegant color footage flowing from dawn beauty through heat-of-day harvesting (the big machines moving row on row), then a midday slower break from the hot sun, then a return for more harvesting, the shadows growing longer, and transport of the wheat to silos, and finally the sunset coming on across newly sheared fields--and all these elements set to Americana-styled music and straightforward harvest-scene poems.

Something like that, anyway; I have no copy of the script on file, it seems. Sadly this one too was nixed by the King Screen bosses, even though the only competing film we could find was a short produced by the federal government's Agency for International Development for viewing overseas only (no domestic screenings allowed!) in those libraries we used to sponsor in foreign countries.

I was really proud of that idea and script; I imagined myself (and the production crew) following in the footsteps of Flaherty, Lorenz, and the other documentary giants. But it was not to be. Still, decades later, now I can finally see what Lorenz at least had in mind, how the visuals, music, and poetic narration worked together, to Presidential praise, international acclaim, and a place in the history books...

Well, actually both films are very much of the Thirties, sort of American Eisenstein, or (lately) John Edwards-styled populism, with some hokey staged visuals, some inadequate framing or coverage utilizing stock footage, and with Thomson's music definitely smoothing over the rough spots and finally carrying the day. Yet they are compelling "message" films even so, and The Plow a likely influence on John Ford's soon-to-come Grapes of Wrath. (Another posting I wrote several months back included my Dorothea Lange poem, very much in the same tradition, and I shamelessly opened that poem with the homage line "The plow that broke the plains/ broke on dust and drouth..." And anyone who read the recent New Zealand post with poem about communities flooded by reservoir construction will know what I discovered viewing The River--which wrongheadedly extols just such manmade (mis)management of Nature. Look how well that T.V.A./Corps of Engineers approach worked with Katrina...)

Living on the planet is never easy, and getting more complex and fraught with unforeseen dangers all the time. The politics of Lorenz's films may now seem simplistic, but the music of Thomson and Copland and the other Americana-influenced composers still resonates, both in recent interpretive recordings and in soundtracks created for a variety of new films today.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

EnZed Revisited

'Tis the season of other demands, so today I say:

Merry Christmas to all
Readers, and y'all
Who've stopped by chance:
Enjoy the fanc-
Iful mixture of stuff.
Stay safe. Now... enough
Of me for a while;
Come back soon, and smile.

((Before we move on from New Zealand (see the previous post), I decided to offer my mid-visit journal observations, betting that things are still pretty much the same 20 years later. After all, looking around our own backyard, especially in this time of anti-immigrant paranoia, we know that nations sadly don't change radically even when they need too...))

March 19

"Why are Aussies like kiwi fruit?... They're rough on the outside, green on the inside, and too many of 'em give you the shits..." (joke transcribed from the bathroom wall of a tearoom in Murchison, en route to Greymouth).

More of the same excellent scenery, excessive sheep, farm towns and friendly folk. Is New Zealand boring or just peaceful? I can't decide. ((Twenty years later, I vote for the latter.)) So here are some accumulated observations, in no particular order:

These islands seem not to have been occupied at all until circa 1400 A.D. when waves of Polynesians sailed in from... somewhere, arguments still raging as to whether Peru or Hawaii or Asia. But these proto-Maoris settled right in and held firm through various European explorations. Then the Brits came and claimed the islands and signed treaties. Today the total population nudges three million in people, but six times that in farm animals, especially sheep--all 19 varieties, ones to eat and ones to shear, and all you ever see are sheep butts aloft and wooly heads down nibbling the grass: perpetual eating machines. (The old Army phrase about "assholes and elbows" almost applies.)

Something like 80% of EnZed's income is agricultural, and U.S. or French boycotts can hurt them quickly; they "farm" sheep and deer as they do tobacco and kiwi fruit. And the farmers are a real political force, unlike ours at home who sadly seem like voices leftover from another era, with only their congressmen willing to listen. Well, you can get tasty lamb and delicious ice cream hereabouts, but the cheeses are a disappointment. And with all the fresh fruit grown, the juices sold (except fresh-squeezed orange) all taste like sugar-water blends.

Kiwis eat so much animal fat and drink so much beer that the nation suffers from both weight and heart problems--even though, I swear, 99% of the population hikes, sails, swims, plays rugby or tennis or whatever. They are exercise crazy--the men regularly wearing shorts to work even--especially fond of their "tracks" (hiking trails), which New Zealanders recite by name as though chanting holy mantras: "Heaphy Track, Milford Track, Abel Tasman, The Routeburn..." And all the tourists go right along, taking the hikes, naming the huts they stayed at, bragging about ghastly weather. (Everyone stares at me aghast for only tromping the beaches and cities--so far, that is; I'll be in the woods soon too.) But these same outdoorsy youths ride the buses and hitch in cars and even hike the tracks ignoring their surroundings, talking only to each other or plugged in to their omnipresent Walkman decks. Yes, rock music rules the woods as well as the streets.

Meanwhile, South Island highways, the main-road links back and forth across this land of mountains and valleys, stand empty for minutes at a time. (Debate goes on: is hitching good here or not? Some have no trouble; others wait literally days for a ride.) But the distance bus drivers seem to be culture heroes--sort of the bards of the tribe, keeping oral history alive with their stories, tossing newspapers out at 40 m.p.h., grabbing mailbags from fences without coming to a complete stop. I keep imagining farm kids standing at the side of the road dreaming of driving a bus when they grow up...

The drivers talk history, local color, flirt with the women, argue with the men--and like almost all Kiwis, speaking in an accent that alters English vowel sounds shamelessly: "Yiss, thet's riiight, tuh dullers. Theah we ah." Greymouth becomes "Grehmith," just as Rotorua was "Rotarah." And it's not just the whites; Maoris are equally guilty, or inventive, depending on one's view. But the old Maori pronunciations and the language itself are dying out; the response seems to be that of the local wit who named his house in pseudo-Maori: "Wai Wurri?"

Yet racial tension is building too as the government lets in more and more Pacific Islanders, who have trouble adjusting to city life, who run up the welfare rolls, who battle the Maoris--youth gangs, that is--and so on. New Zealand's world-class rugby team, nicknamed the "All-Blacks," has none. Melanesian Fijians are about as "Black" as New Zealand will accept.

What else? Oh, the vegetation. The greenery comes in a dozen distinct shades, plus grey tones and numerous browns. Forests and ordinary "bush" are a treat, fascinating mixtures of pines and palms, tree ferns and succulents, poplars viewed as weeds and Kauri gum trees held sacred--with so much sap dripping that the amber-like, dried-up or fossilized gum clumps are collected, cut and polished as gemstones.

Finally, one of the most beautiful things I've found on either island is the painting on a building wall seen as one heads south from Nelson. Painted to seem a giant window, it looks out on a gorgeous mountain and lake/sea scape with cumulus clouds strung out above. Called "Ao Tea Roa" (for the original Maori name for New Zealand, "Land of the Long White Cloud"), the painting inveigles and teases, because there are clouds and shadows of clouds inside with the viewer as well, like a Magritte painting or some trompe l'oeil trick, I guess. But it shines and glistens and opens new vistas into and on New Zealand...

March 20

Greymouth was a nothing sort of town; Hokitika, further south, interesting as the source of New Zealand jade, called "greenstone," which one finds carved in traditional tiki charms on sale everywhere. (Think Kon-tiki book, and tiki bars.)

Here at Franz Josef Glacier the rain is pouring down. But with the hostel about to close for the day, I must brave the hiking trails regardless...


11 p.m. The facts are these: I tramped for five hours in rain and overcast. Missed one trail switchback (didn't see the fallen "Blocked Path" sign), so I wasted a half hour clambering high up and skulking low down along a high-cliff riverbank looking for the non-trail. Also, because I wore a hat to keep the drops from splattering my bald pate, I cleverly clonked into branches instead. But I hiked! I did see rain and rain forest and, yes, the blue-white glacier. (I just wish living in Washington State didn't dilute the novelty and beauty of New Zealand's scenic wonders.)

Then I returned to the hostel long enough to claim my pack, and set out to hitch the mere 24 kilometers to the next glacier. Well, three hours later I was still standing there, wet clothes steaming in the sun, slapping at the pesky stinging flies. The squat little rental car that finally stopped and opened a door for me looked a doubtful proposition, but inside were Bob and Esther, Yanks--I mean Rebels--from Georgia, him entering medical residency, her a nurse, both of them witty, generous, and animated. We rode for four hours gabbing, singing, reciting poetry, sharing food, all the way to Wanaka, two-thirds of the way down to Queenstown, tourist central for the southern part of the island.

This thought: it's the remarkable joy of meeting people like Esther and Bob, having a great afternoon after a drippy morning, that makes all this rambling worthwhile. Every day is a surprise, and likely an adventure in some small way.

((Looking back from 2007, I would only add that most of the charming people I met and even became friends with on that long trip were natives of the host countries, or tourists from lands other than the U.S. That particular rainy day my unexpected benefactors just happened to be Americans. Also, I had a grand time all around New Zealand (six weeks) and would recommend a trip Down Under, there and on to Australia, to anyone. Get out there!))

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sinking Down Under

In 1985, I decided I'd had enough--I'd experienced college/grad school and/or working steady since 1959, a marriage ended badly, two kids living with me in the family house who were pretty much grown, and a job that had been loads of fun and hard work (mostly Rainier Beer ads) for 12 years but seemed to be heading south...

A military brat, I'd grown up without one particular place to call home, and after more than 25 years stuck in one place, I was ready to hit the road again. I announced to my kids and the ex- and other family members and the bossman that I'd be leaving the country early in '86, probably for a couple of years, and everyone needed to start getting used to the idea.

Various unforeseen factors arose, of course (like meeting and falling in love with the woman who eventually became my second wife), but I still did succeed in escaping at the end of January 1986, flying southwest through Hawaii to Fiji and Tonga, crossing the dateline and so losing my birthday en route, then a few weeks later heading on to New Zealand and Australia, all of them the initial stops on what became my around-the-world adventure. (I had decided earlier that I would carry no camera, but would instead see and hear and write. And so for the next 19 months I kept a journal and wrote poems and did my best to document the adventure in words only.)

Midway in the adventure, I optimistically imagined that my prose was so wonderful the world would want to read a book combining my travel writing and related poetry. (As a certain rooster used to say, "That's a joke, son.") But looking back later on going-on-two-years out in the world, always backpacking it, living mostly on the cheap, staying in hovels and hostels and pensiones, meeting native inhabitants and other travellers, discovering the history and culture and arts, the money and language and local transport in each new place... all of it did prove to be an amazing, truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I believe a few sights and events might be worth reviving for this eclectic, keep-'em-guessing blog. And first on my short list is the day I happened to be travelling by bus across the south end of New Zealand's south island (almost two decades before the Lord of the Rings movie makers)--and discovered I had entered an eerie place of abandoned farms and buildings harking back to construction of the great Grand Coulee Dam or power plays of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I tried to capture it in a poem...

The Death of Cromwell

The bus slows sinking, rolling
down the grade, road dropping
lower and lower as the walls
of the chopped gorge rise over us.
Simply called “The Junction”
back in its glory years,
Cromwell’s spent hoard of days
now can be plainly numbered…
just six remain, in fact.

Platted by miners who long
panned here for placer gold
where two major rivers meet,
now the town must die
before its time, while its descendents
still pluck golden-nugget
apricots from four banks of orchards
drowning in cold anticipation.
A new-risen dam some miles below

now blocks that joined flow;
and the deepening reservoir's
glacial blue won’t exempt any
who linger here testing tides of chance.
The "Roundhead"’s nominal statue
is headed elsewhere by truck,
with some few structures dismantled
for hauling to the new Cromwell
a-building just up the way.

Only crumbling foundations await
the late stay of execution
that now can't come. Frame houses
abandoned to the currents
gather the different dust
falling from bleached canyon walls.
Broken windows overlook
one last brilliant crop of roses
crimson red; lank sweetpeas dozing;

and prickly fluff from some
unknown weed gone to seed,
drifting among us like pieces
of Cromwell’s quickly disappearing
past. History claims the town,
its destiny to join ancient strata
we can almost read up there
where the rivers once wound...
But for now the future is fluid,

brightly foretold in blue acrylic
painted on those few buildings
left, perched precariously
half-way down the main incline,
too late taking their stand:
“Here and no higher, by God!”
By accident we have taken
one of the last buses to be
routed through Cromwell-That-Was.

We pause just long enough
to take on troubled expressions
and three of the local gentry
looking lost, but leaving
before the flood keeps its promise.
Then our diesel ark departs,
low-gearing the old road
up to Cromwell Redivivus,
carrying the rest of us too

to a questionable future.
A last neck-craning look back
lets us read the weathered message
stenciled along a cracked wall
of the town’s long-vacant hotel:
“Cromwell Lodge—your ‘home’
away from home…” More homeless
now, we ride bemused. But ahead,
a double rainbow arches

over the new California-styled mall,
belying the doom we feel
and dazzling us all.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Encounters in Store

Sandie and I owned a bookstore in Seattle's busy tourist-draw, the Pike Place Market, for 10 years (1992-2002). Business was fine for the first half-decade, but then the big discounters and on-line megastores started to gnaw away at our livelihood. Plus I developed arthritus in both knees and found all-day standing very difficult. So when we received an offer to sell, well... now I work happily at home, selling books and LP records on line only.

During our ten store years, mostly due to the walk-through location, many authors and celebrities chose to stop in to look around. I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of those near-close encounters (oh look, he's namedropping again).

The store was called MisterE Books and Records, so of course one of our specialties was Mysteries. A great many popular mystery writers dropped by once or twice--Bill Pronzini, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, James W. Hall, Barbara Seranella among them--just to be friendly. But the crowded tourist location and enforced hours made book-signings impossible. So when Seattle's own series bigwig, J.A. Jance, came in to set up a publicity signing for her novels, I politely demurred, which caused her to sneer and never show up again. However, others like Alaskan authors Dana Stabenow and John Straley liked the store's collector contents, so each would drop by whenever she (or he) flew south to the Lower 48. (Dana usually bought a couple of books too.)

The biggest celebrity sale I made was to Bette Midler. She was in town to perform a concert, beginning a long tour. She strode in one afternoon, took a quick look 'round, and then asked me to help her pick some good books she could take on the road. We had a great time browsing the store and building a stack of a dozen or so, mostly modern fiction as I recall. I confessed to Bette that I'd had a hand in her decades-earlier Seattle appearance on stage in Pete Townshend's rock-opera Tommy (I'd given a copy of the record album, the year it came out, to the Seattle Opera's impresario-producer, suggesting he might think about staging it). She told me she'd hated that gig, but forgave me anyway.

Another theatrical drop-in was great comic playwright Neil Simon, in Seattle to try out a new play--he complimented the store and gave me an autograph but I think his purchases were tourist stuff only. Other actors wandered through too, including Tom Skerritt and gray-bearded gentleman Bill... Bill who? My mind draws a blank, but he's the familiar black character actor who gets hired when the production can't afford Morgan Freeman! (All apologies to Bill, who was a great guy to talk to.)

One afternoon the staff and I were amazed to see Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas walk in--or maybe I should say they danced in, because this was when the two had first become a couple, and they were both clearly smitten with, er, love. They were completely enraptured, and wrapped around each other, hugging and kissing while they tangoed down the aisles, not really looking at any books at all. But their smiles were brilliant and infectious, and the arm-in-arm duo effortlessly charmed us ordinary mortals anyway.

Wynona Rider was another unexpected guest. Wearing a Navy pea jacket and knit cap pulled down over her ears (a disguise, I suppose), she and a very tall female pal showed up in search of a gift for Rider's boyfriend. We discussed illustrated books, which her boyfriend collected, and I eventually sold her some nice $50-$75 item from our glass showcase. (Her public problems a year or two later were a shock; she'd been sweet and shy that day, and I know she bought rather than shoplifted!)

The one woman who didn't come in, that I always fantasized would show up, was Emmy Lou Harris. Her Nineties-on gigs were often in the downtown venues just a block or two from our store, and I thought sure she'd wander by one afternoon between soundcheck and performance. After all, we had our military brat background, Southern upbringing, and Gram Parsons all in common... but no such cosmic luck.

Instead I got to visit (briefly) with various other musicians--among them David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal, Graham Nash, Martina MacBride, Michael Feinstein, even Itzhak Perlman one amazing afternoon. And Seattle's own came by occasionally; Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, for example, shopped for Christmas books for his wife (she collected old kids books) two or three times. And Mike McCready of Pearl Jam (long before some health problems got to him) was another who visited and then artistically defaced (or do I mean enhanced?) the jacket centerspread of one of the group's albums when I asked him to sign it.

But mention of Nirvana brings me to the last person I'd like to talk about--Kurt Cobain. Grunge music's main man only ever came in the store once (that I know of), but the occasion turned out to be tragically memorable. Some time around the end of March or the first of April 1994, into the store ambled a scruffy-looking blond-haired dude carrying a toddler on his shoulders, accompanied by a male chum in a hat. The three wandered around a bit... and I was thinking everything from shoplifters to rock stars I didn't quite recognize. And then I did; it was Cobain.

He passed the child on to his friend, then came to the front, complimented me on having a Leadbelly album for sale in the front winbow, and asked if I had a copy of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch--no collector thing, just a paperback to read. I checked the shelves and said no, but we started talking about Beat Generation novels, and for no good reason, I asked if he'd read Alexander Trocchi's harrowing novel of drug addiction, Cain's Book (an uncommon item which I did have). He said no, but elected to buy it after I gave a capsule review.

At the cash register, then, I asked him to autograph a note card for me (no albums in the store), which he signed as by "Curdt Kobane." I shrugged at that, figuring I'd become un-cool, infringing on his privacy; and the three of them left.

Less than a week later, supposed drug addict Kurt killed himself--so said the coroner, as opposed to the conspiracy fans and Courtney Love haters, who believe she offed him somehow. I wondered then, and am still a bit haunted now, if the Trocchi book (and I) somehow contributed to his decision to commit suicide.

As one member of a family that experiences symptoms of mild depression, I do know how black and unforgiving the world can appear. Some days it really is too much, all of it. I'm just glad that sunshine and music and love help keep me sane, and I wish Cobain had experienced more than the chaos of too much stardom and, maybe, parenting he wasn't prepared for.

Our old Pike Market store had its problems, but some days it sure did lift my spirits...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Nights Escape Without Us

When I started this blog, it was really aimed at telling my life story a bit at a time, because I knew I was too lazy to write some sort of autobiography. I've witnessed a lot of major scenes and moments in almost 65 years, still have more tales to tell, and hope to see and hear lots more wonders before me and this thing are done!

One aspect that readers (there must be one or two of you) will have noticed is my shameless posting of the best poems I've written over the years, many of them published individually but no book ever compiled--Ed's Greatest Non-Hits, I guess. Today I present another grouping, several short, sort-of love poems joined together in one longer, multi-part suite I call...

Language of Night

I. Defining Evening

Evening comes down, and in, conjugating day
and night, separating the halves, the light left over
from the dark arriving, the planet turning away
as twilight--dual light--evens out, like lovers
meeting each other half-way, touching lips, then limbs,
clasping their opposites close in purples of descent,
shedding the light clothes of summer, easing them-
selves down, wondering where the close of day went
but not caring much now they are wearing night,
the black of the easy deaths of sex and sleep
put on as hours are, the blank in day’s despite
impossible to fill before morning keeps
its appointment in tomorrow as today,
and evening becomes a memory on the way.

II. Afterhours

Riffs of fire
split the molten skies,
pulsing through layers,
running the changes,
charring to black.

Night’s new arrangements
cool and slowly
harden. Streetlights come on
to anyone. Now
the moon blows sax,

a Pres-redential solo
floating butter-cream
over the grays: cat
can play. Lady whispers
her dream chorus—

sixteen bars of gone
reds, bone whites,
silent black-and-blue
notes. We are jazzed,
every one of us.

III. The Sending

Rise up, elusive woman,
on the limbs of my absence;
walk through the city
clothed in the shadow of my longing;
sleep each night
adrift on the dark waters of my desire…
while I lie here,
a thousand likelihoods from you,
with the scent of your shoulders
dreaming in my veins
and the pale dust of your nipples
weighing my eyelids down,
teasing my lips into speech.

IV. A Matter of Silence

The silences of the night go deep,
and deeper still, extending
to become ecstasies of the ordinary:
a whispering high up in the sycamore,
the bone-marrow buzz in the wiring,
the sibilant hairs along your mound
lifting one by one as they dry.
There are fricatives and plosives
pent-up in these minutes that I
dare not release before dawn;
the world’s geologic history retold
night after night in a dusty glass;
randy molecules of carbon and oxygen
jostling each other for space
with each whirled breath you take.
I believe in walls, in words,
in momentary lapses of memory.
Otherwise, how could I never
break down the barriers between us,
open myself to your nightly absence,
hold your heart in my deepening silence?
This is my plan so far:
I will lie here awake
for two days and most of three nights,
and then live again in your dreams.

V. In Sleep

We turn and circulate
through the regions of the dark.
All the faces we always wear
rise up as reclaimants,
surrounding this fragrant space
rich with wishes. Something tender
whispers in your breath: Open now.
Put on tomorrow, that you
waken clothed in plenitude.

Skin to skin, calf to hand,
we congregate after separation,
we wade through dawnlight
to the other side of language.
You bend me, I sleep you,
the nights escape without us.

VI. The Bends

She had gone deep,
fallen to grace
currents of sleep,
to drift in place

and dream among
fronds of desire,
nitrogen sung
in the blood’s fire,

the undertow
of ocean night.
Surfacing slow,
she bubbles light…

rises through floor
and silver sheets
to sprawl ashore,
her spaced heartbeats

declaring dawn:
the dark swim ends,
ecstasy gone
as sleep unbends.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Last Time Around (Part 2)

((Continuing with the Rick Nelson piece, we resume after the release of Nelson in Concert...))

During the next year, Rick and the Stone Canyon Band took to touring (with Tim Cetera in for Randy Meisner), even making it north to Seattle for a week's stay, at a suburban tavern/club called The Impact, which turned out to be a smash engagement with turnaway crowds for almost every performance--a major occurrence considering the Impact's size and setting. Located at the far fringe of Bellevue, that so-called "bedroom of Seattle," and populated mostly by car lots, out-of-work Boeing workers, and rising young executives ((no Microsoft millionaires yet!)), the tavern (which eventually failed) from without looked like a bowling alley or Army warehouse. I mean huge! and seating maybe a thousand inside.

Anyhow, here came Rick Nelson, and suddenly the place was doing sold-out business night after night. And the crowd's makeup was essentially the same for each performance, a freaky, fascinating array of curious college kids, scurvy c&w fans, oldsters drawn by their leftover Ozzie & Harriet memories, and--especially--legions of Ricky rockers clinging to the last vestiges of their fast-fading youth. (I plead guilty to the last charge.) The show the audience put on was almost as good as the group's high-falutin', hill-filtered rock: beehive-haired, pantsuited, giddy and giggling married women indulging their fantasies on the dance floor (and backstage); balding but sideburned husbands measuring themselves against a star image; bluecollar truckdriver types wondering "What in the hell am I doin' here listenin' to these longhaired punks?"; and all those faithful fanatics muttering aloud, "Why doesn't he sing 'Poor Little Fool' and 'Lonesome Town'?"

((I don't claim any prescience, but this reaction must have met Rick and the band everywhere they played, and it eventually led to him penning his amazing, frustrated, last great hit, "Garden Party," a year or so later.))

Nostalgia filled the air those nights like the chicken feathers around Alice Cooper. In fact, the applause for Rick's excellent new material, including several of his own songs from the still-forthcoming second album, was decidedly desultory when compared to the explosive outbursts that greeted each old hit redone. The group accepted that situation graciously, though enjoying much joking among themselves whenever called upon to deliver any past Nelson glory they hadn't already refinished, polished to a country gloss. Good humor carried the night, however, with Rick even waiting offstage to talk to the inane gaggles of (mostly) female fans.

My observations during those painful moments, plus a pair of interviews with the man himself--during which he reminisced openly and humorously about some distinctly un-Ozzie-and-Harrietish adventures--convinced me of his quiet individuality and innate goodness. (No scoffing, you cynical bastards!) After about twenty-five years in the entertainment world, fifteen of those as a star of some import, after all the changes and bullshit the music and film worlds put their people through, Rick Nelson really is--still is--a gentle man, the perfect image, nay, reality, of the decent, level-headed, All-American boy-next-door. Strange to find such a man still extant, but a pleasure.

As was his second new album, Rick Sings Nelson, which proved his prowess as producer and songwriter. ((I'll skip the full review to get to the best:)) "Sweet Mary" mixed droning and chilling electrics, driving steel, and on-rushing rhythm into a rock wall of sound excitement, while "Look at Mary" buried Rick's lead, added echoing harmonies, and then turned the bass and drums loose, heading down the highway straight east towards the Memphis Sun. ((I wonder who that Mary was...))

My particular favorite was and is "Down Along the Bayou," a swamp rocker as good as any of Creedence's forays in that area. In a quick two minutes, Rick's lyrics run the gamut from happiness to tragedy in his mock-traditional saga of a Southern kid who fell in with bad companions. Meanwhile, the band was just all-out getting off, loose and goosey, good and juicy, with a guitar blend that should have been bottled and bonded and given away free to anyone lost in the pop doldrums. Could have been a top single ((I still believe that)) but nothing ever came of it, nor of the whole album (in the U.S. anyway--Europe took some notice). Rick and the guys just rocked on, making people dance and smile and feel good, for another year.

And then came album three, Rudy the Fifth (Decca 75297), supposedly named for a brand of cheap champagne. Well, there's nothing cheap about the music within. Eclecticism is the watchword this time, with everything from baroque to gospel, Dylan to pop. I just keep puttin' it on and gettin' it on. ((skipping the details, to focus on some last observations again:)) ... Or the strings-and-flute-sweetened farewell of "The Last Time Around"--Rick's in impeccable voice, Pat's drums are prodding casually, Tom's solo wafts upwards on the subtle strings: "I know you don't believe in my philosophy/ But I thank you for the love you've given me/ This is my last time around/ And I don't know where I'm bound... (spoken) See you later, baby." Elegant shades of Tom Rush!

((One might consider this the song that summed up his life, given the eventual fatal plane crash... And the song next mentioned is another possible candidate:))

But outdone by the last track of all. Every once in a while a number comes along that has that instant shock/flash of recognition--it gets in your head and in your bones and promises to last as long as music itself. That's how I hear, and feel, "Gypsy Pilot." The arrangement leaves me numb and dumb--it's like the great-granddaddy of all electrical storms, shrieking and streaking and screaming, the steel zooming and crashing, the rhythm booming and bashing, and Rick's autobiographical lyrics ringing in your ears, building from cliche to philosophical stance:

When I was a young boy, my mama told me, "Son,
You got to keep it together, you're the only one,"
So I tried to see the sunshine and I tried to feel the rain,
But I just couldn't get it together, I was feelin' too much pain,
So I got myself a gittar when I was just a kid,
I played rock 'n roll music and I'm so glad I did,
'Cause now I see the sunshine, now I feel the rain,
And I just want to keep it together and I hope you feel the same...
When they claim my body, they won't have much to say,
"Except that he lived a good life, he lived every day,
I know he saw the sunshine, I know he felt the rain,
He loved everybody and he hopes you do the same."

Rick Nelson, folks. Still here, still rocking--rocking harder and better than ever, country steel or not. He's an original and he'll always be one. If you can't escape whatever prejudices may remain to you from Rick's old days of TV and such, then I pity you. You're missing some of the best music being put down anywhere.

So, be-bop baby, it's late but I can't help it--teenage idol Ricky-Rick-Eric is still for me just a little too much. That's all.

((One last memory: after the hit success of "Garden Party," Rick was guest host on Saturday Night Live, and the writers came up with a brilliant sketch; Rick keeps coming into some suburban kitchen back door, saying, "Hi Mom, I'm home..." just as he did on the Nelson TV show. But this time each kitchen turns out to belong to a different and unrelated Fifties family sit-com like Father Knows Best or whatever, and each wrong Mom reacts with dismay, forcing him to leave. Yeah, that pretty much summed up Nelson's place in the world by then...))