We didn’t make beats, we played the guitar.
I’m reading this book “The Dog Stars” because I just finished “The River” and I wanted more.
They’re both by Peter Heller. Who I found accidentally with “Celine,” but didn’t realize this until I was researching later.
I don’t like to recommend books that are not a 10. And a lot of what I’ve read recently is not.
I read the Rachel Cusk trilogy, from “Outline” through “Transit” and “Kudos.” But each installment got worse, so I didn’t want to tell you about them. But the first book, “Outline,” blew my mind. Do you live your life internally or externally? You know the external people, always in action, always talking, filling up the space, with tons of friends, they feel like they fit in. The internal? They’re often inside their heads, contemplating, analyzing, oftentimes telling nobody their thoughts. That’s what “Outline” is all about. Ostensibly it’s a novel about a newly-separated woman, or maybe she’s already divorced, teaching in Greece for a spell. It opens with a flight from the U.K. Do you talk to your seatmates? I no longer do. Then again, I know a director who got all the investments for his films by flying first class. He really couldn’t afford it, but it paid dividends. Not much really happens in “Outline,” but if you live your life on feelings, you’ll resonate.
And then “The River.” What did I read before? Oh, Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, “Little Failure.” Got good at the end, but it reminded me of why I disliked “Super Sad True Love Story,” his writing style is not smooth, “Lake Success” is much better.
And I downloaded the sample chapter of “The River” based on the reviews. I’m combing them all the time, seeing what resonates.
And yes, I read on a Kindle. The book business, readers, are anti-technology. Makes me crazy, there’s even an anti-electronic screed in today’s “New York Times.” But what bugged me more was the fact-checking of Bernie Sanders, you know, like they fact-check our President. But this was a false equivalency, Sanders stretched the truth by 10%, literally. The “New York Times” is so busy trying to look fair that it bends over backwards and hurts the left wing’s cause, which is kind of funny, since the right wing doesn’t read it, except for hard news. Incensed me, I wanted to stand up to the paper, but I don’t like pissing in the wind, sending them e-mail, I’m not the guy who calls in for the radio contest or buys lottery tickets or…if the odds are infinitesimal I balk. Then again, the “Times” has less impact than ever before. But its reach certainly exceeds mine.
So, “The River” sets a mood!! You think you’re in Canada paddling a canoe north like Jack and Wynn. Only Heller rewrote it with a dictionary. No one would know every word in this book. He’s a graduate of the Iowa program, he’s trying to impress an inside, out of touch group, not knowing that readability is key.
And “The Dog Stars” follows the same paradigm. Unknowable words (which I look up on the Kindle, that’s a built-in feature), but an incredible sense of place. Colorado after a flu wipes out most of the population.
And “The River” has a bad ending, a bunt after all that action. But like “The Dog Stars,” it isn’t until halfway through that the action truly begins.
So I’m lying on the bed reading “The Dog Stars” and they’re deep in a canyon in Colorado and…
I start singing “Country Road.” In my head, silly, no one breaks into song alone like that, especially not after reading a book.
And it made me think of James Taylor and that time.
I actually got the initial album on Apple first. I love the original “Carolina In My Mind.” The production is dated, but those songs are so good on the first LP.
And then I got the second album, “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain” are the famous cuts, but this was before James Taylor got any airplay. We were on our own. And I played those LPs, because I went to see James at the Capitol Theatre, and I wanted to know all the songs. There were only a few hundred people there, he was solo, he sat on a stool.
And only a week or so later I was in Boston and my friend and I went to see James at Harvard.
This was April 1970.
Within a month, tickets started to fly.
But the first song that enraptured me on “Sweet Baby James” was “Country Road.”
Walk on down, walk on down, walk on down
Walk on down, walk on down a country road
The chorus hooked me first.
But this was also at the advent of the back to nature, return to the land era. We weren’t all connected, we could live in solace.
Now “Country Road” was the fifth song on the first side, so for a long time I owned it, people only knew the hits, they hadn’t gotten that far.
And the trick was to sit in front of your turntable, adjust the speed so the key was the same, and learn the song on your guitar.
And I worked at a camp and we sang it.
And when I went to college…I even went to the basement club that soon closed and got up on stage in front of maybe three people and played it. I’d never do anything like that again, but when you’re a freshman, you’re looking for like-minded people, you don’t know you have to be cool.
And there really weren’t any like-minded people at Middlebury. They were all at UCLA, and they all knew each other.
Now eventually there was an extended version of “Country Road,” where James kept talking about walking on down, but it didn’t resonate like the original, the same way the redo of “Carolina In My Mind” on the “Greatest Hits” album was secondary to the original. When no one is paying attention, you do your best work. You’re not self-conscious. The key is to be able to get to this place after you’ve made it, and that’s so hard to do.
The original “Country Road” doesn’t seem to be made for an audience, just the people in the studio, so when you listen to it you too are taken away, to the river in “The River” or to Colorado in “The Dog Stars.”
And if you know “Country Road” you don’t forget it.
And it’s easy to sing.
And easy to play.
Mama don’t understand it
She wants to know where I’ve been
Our parents weren’t hip, as a matter of fact they were kind of clueless, they were not our best friends. We went on adventures, unsupervised, we took chances, and the end results were not always good
I guess my feet know where they want me to go
Walking on a country road
We’re overwhelmed by the news. But oftentimes it’s the same damn thing, nothing happens. And really, it’s what we do in our own personal lives that matters. But with this focus on politics we’re drawn in, afraid our lives and the country hang in the balance.
But we yearn to be set free. To let our minds drift.
Used to be the music came first. It was all about personal expression. Straight from the writer’s heart. So it resonated with truth. And it was anathema to sell out, the artists were on our side, which made their word even more powerful, because corporations were the devil, as well as the sold out old men.
But I can hear a heavenly band full of angels
And they’re coming to set me free
I don’t know nothing ’bout the why or when
But I can tell that it’s bound to be
Because I could feel it, child, yeah
On a country road
Something was coming, and we could feel it.
Is something coming now? I’m not sure I can feel it.
Take to the highway won’t you lend me your name
Your way and my way seem to be one and the same
But those times have passed. That’s what Woodstock was about. Turned out there was a mass of us, that the media missed, who were all like-minded, who were driven by the music.
But this was back when musicians were leaders. And were listened to.
We’re still listening to James Taylor.