Today was the day I finally remembered to buy a digital copy of “Empty Garden” by Elton John. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote it in tribute to John Lennon. I’ve seldom heard this song on the radio, and when I do, it tends to happen in scenarios plagued by poor radio reception, like waiting for a stop light to change between two semi trucks. I’m surprised that I haven’t had a dream that I’ve been airdropped in wilds of Alaska with a transistor radio tuned a station a thousand miles distant, and I can barely pick out that song through the fuzz. In the dream, I’d have the volume turned all the way up just to hear Elton John, but some moldly oldy like “Precious and Few” by Climax would break in from a closer station and temporarily deafen me with its sweetness.
I didn’t pick “Precious and Few” at random. Something like that did happen to me about 30 years ago when I was travelling across Wyoming. I was thrilled to hear “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, another song that used to elude me on the radio, and I had the sudden, impossibly loud interruption of “Precious and Few”. Since my ears were too shocked to listen to much, I talked one of my travel companions into singing “Precious and Few” with me for the next 20 miles, an annoying feat which we repeated in the absence of radio reception several times over that cross-country trip. How we knew the lyrics and key change is a mystery to me. Perhaps we knit this knowledge from various K-Tel album commercials.
I’ve lingered too long on the foregoing tangent, so I will return to the Elton John’s song that I remembered to buy today. Hearing the song more clearly has lessened a bit of its mystique for me. It kind of reminds me of when I was a student at Duke and first saw Christian Laettner in person. Since writing and mailing letters was still common in those days, I wrote a letter to a friend letting her know that Laettner wasn’t as attractive in person as he appeared on television. Her reply to my claim was memorable: “Don’t f*ck with the fantasy.”
Thus in buying the song I’ve accidentally diminished the production quality of a daydream I harbored in the early 80s. In that waking dream of my eight-year-old self, I wondered how the world might be different had the fates of two famous victims of gun violence been reversed. What if Lennon survived and Reagan perished? Their shootings happened very close in time, less than four months apart, and these stories loomed large in my grade-school world.
Now that I listened to “Empty Garden” several times today, I realize that question still intrigues me. How would the world be different if the fates of Lennon and Reagan had been reversed? Would George Bush the Elder have continued Reagan’s agenda so early in the regime? Would Lennon have gracefully landed in the realm of Has-Beens? Would labor unions be in such decline in the U.S. had Reagan not been around to quash the air traffic controller’s strike that happened later in 1981?
I suppose there’s not much point to exploring such veins of alternate history. The best scenario of all would be if neither shooting had happened. It’s possible John Lennon could have created his best work in protest of the Reagan era.
The music of childhood can resonate for years. There are some songs from those years that can evoke just how I felt the first time I heard a particular song. Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” is one of them.
I think I was watching a rainstorm from the picture window of our living room in suburban Indianapolis when I first heard that one. The photo above was taken right around the same time; Snoopy was my likely companion for this reverie, too. I recall that the song transported me to a wistful feeling that was novel at the time, like I was longing for the future as someone older might long for a time in the past. I sensed that rainy days were good for solitude so one could reflect on curious feelings and things, like what happened to the toy elephant in that made several appearances in the pictures of my sister taken before I was born? One of my earliest memories was breaking something, like the sound of its shattering awoke me into conscious memory. Had I broken that elephant?
The song itself seems to be just as lost in time as my feelings were on that day. I feel like there’s an underlying sense of the British trying to find their place in a postcolonial world. That has little relevance to a American in the Midwest, except that sometimes I do feel like I am living in an outpost of a bygone empire.
Today has been just as rainy as that afternoon when I watched the storm from the picture window of our living room in the late 70’s. I heard this song as I drove home from work today and knew that it was the right music for this day that was 40 years in the future from that afternoon.
Country music is like root beer. If you do not acquire a taste for it in your early days, it stands little chance of being loved. I rarely heard country music while I was growing up, so most of it sounds like maudlin static to me. I blamed Garth Brooks most of all for the great country infestation of pop radio. In the end, I think pop won that siege. When I hear country radio these days (almost never intentionally), it sounds like pop dressed in pedal steel, arpeggios and twang.
Pair Garth Brooks and KISS, and there’s a combo burrito of two brands of macho I can barely stand. I don’t want a dude in spandex wearing a top that looks like an underwire bra for his chest hair singing about licking anything. Even less do I want to see a man wearing a belt buckle big enough to cut him in two strut around on stage.
I’m not sure why I didn’t seek the nearest fallout shelter when they appeared on stage together twenty-two years ago. I figured that a song from a tribute album called Kiss My Ass might be worth a listen. Back then, I suspected that the pairing was so absurd it could work, and it did.
“Hard Luck Woman” suits Garth Brooks so well that it’s hard to believe that this song wasn’t written for a country singer in the first place.
I guess I shouldn’t blame for Garth Brooks for rise of country music into the mainstream. Along with bands like the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS helped open the ears of America to songs about trucks, tractors and badadonka donk donks.
I think the latest creepy clown hysteria is tumbling down its peak. I was combing through my archives of parade photos and found the above image. The man’s costume accidentally shows the desired conclusion of such clown fevers: that the clown will be real enough to be captured, that he will face justice and that he will still be a clown after he washes off the creepy clown grease paint. All of these secondhand clown sightings betray this hope: he exists, but he is not one of us.
Speaking of grease paint, I think that KISS was ill-advised in their second incarnation without the make-up. I had this epiphany whilst listening to “Shout It Out Loud” at work last week. Their musical depth was about as stunning as their natural looks. I have a fuzzy memory that they unveiled their real faces in a press conference held on a Destroyer ship. Maybe this was the same Destroyer on which Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” was filmed. This makes sense because Cher’s rear end and Gene Simmon’s face are equally fearsome sights.
Now I’m thinking of that “Send in the Clowns” song. It’s one of those songs I avoid hearing because it is so draining. “Someone Like You” by Adele is another song of this caliber. When I hear such songs, I think that the medieval folks who bled people to balance their humours were onto something. Some songs are just so oppressive that I imagine bleeding myself to relieve the emotional pressure.
When I was a kid, I’d look over magazines and the Sunday paper, noting the trappings of what I’d imagine would make a perfect adult life. The lighter side of me would dream of building a country estate based on model homes depicted in the real estate ads. I’d imagine driving home up a winding lane in a MG convertible, wearing some smart outfit from Penney’s in a mail-order only color, eager to set up the filet mignon for dinner. The part of me that secretly rooted for Darth Vader plotted what kind of vices I’d choose in later days, so I also dreamed of owning a penthouse where I’d smoke Benson and Hedges and sip Riunite while listening to a hoarde of albums from the Columbia Record and Tape Club.
I was able to forego the indulgence of nicotine and alcohol for several more years, but I fell prey to Columbia House as soon as I felt I could write my address as well as an adult would. When I was 12, I taped a penny to the order form, checked off the box that declared I was at least 18 years old and waited for my box of tunes. By the time I actually smoked a Benson and Hedges (which tasted like minty dust instead of something worthy of Remington Steele, by the way), I had signed up for the deal four times, at least once under an assumed name. I was able to pay for these tapes and CD’s first with allowance money and later with minimum wage pay until the recoil of this scheme would hit me: the forgotten selection of the month billed at full retail. A collection agency pursued my alias by the time I was 14.
This scheme did not portend a life of crime. I did an online search on this topic and discovered that this scam was so widespread that the company factored such losses into its business model.
I will close this post with a few links to some articles on Columbia House: