Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jimi Hendrix and the Jolly Jumper

"January's dwindling. Another storm is kindling."

There must be a lot of rejected weather lore that didn't make the cut: crumpled balls of newsprint lying around Ben Franklin's shoes. Anyway, in four minutes it'll be February, which will make all the difference. It will.

Unfortunately, Matthew has a slight fever tonight, in the wake of his band's torrid performance at the Arlington High Battle of the Bands on Saturday. They led off with a kick-ass version of a Jimi Hendrix song I didn't remember called "Dolly Dagger", including energetic cowbell, which reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago that has a little guitar, a little more Hendrix, and a fair amount of juggling in it. So here it is, unedited, and happy February, which will somehow get us from white to green, like a wintergreen mint that changes color.


This is about my son at twelve and a half. A kind of photograph with caption. The other night, a schoolnight but after homework, getting toward nine thirty. Carol upstairs doing her exercises. Matthew’s excited because he’s just taught himself the riff from “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath on his electric guitar—dom, dom, dom, dom, dumba-dumba-dum-ba dom dom dom. Anyway, he’s got his computer on, and it’s pumping out the music he’s downloaded from his I-Pod. Black Sabbath followed by Santana followed by Jimi Hendrix. He’s particularly fond of “Purple Haze.” And now, in a swoop of energy, he grabs his three juggling balls, the leathery, four-color ones, and begins to juggle in time to the music. This is something he’s been working on lately, inspired by the amazing Chris Bliss, whose tour de force juggling to most of the white-apple side of Abbey Road (“Golden Slumbers”, etc.) is one of Matthew’s shrines on YouTube. I’m reading something, and looking up from time to time, but I can see he’s really into it, doing it better than he’s ever done it before, fast little turns, then tossing the balls high whenever he wants to match a slower soaring part, and far from being bothered by a dropped ball, leaps to scoop it up still in time to the music and immediately incorporating it back into the rhythm—purple haze, all through my brain…’scuse me, while I kiss the sky…—he’s amazing himself, riding the joy and high of his sheer bravura performance, an incredible fusion of rock music, dance, juggling, Hendrix, and his own matchless exuberant drive. After Purple Haze comes “Satisfaction” by the Stones and it’s just as good, just as good, not too fast, but steady, hard-driving, bomp bomp ba-bom bom…a hey-hey-hey…that’s what I say…he’s totally in the groove, tossing, dancing, dropping, diving, scooping, and of course I can’t help flashing on the Jolly Jumper, which is always my then-and-now point of reference. Just an average moment when he was about a year old, strapped into one of those Jolly Jumpers, a springy harness that lets a baby bounce and bounce. I picture him, a kind of elongated baby in a pair of footed peejays, bounding away, grinning away, just a brief little snippet from the life, representing all the million other moments that I don’t remember, that have slipped through the cracks, but this one is the one I pull up (it used to be seeing him on the scale in the maternity room, with blood under his tiny fingernails, roaring at the lights and the cold) and compare to the Matthew at any modern moment, any new now, and especially, spectacularly, this rock juggler in his jumping jack flash element.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hurry Up, Cows

Rosebuds. Each of us must have at least one.

I’m referring to the mysterious “Rosebud,” hoarsely murmured (in tight close-up) by the dying tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, just before the snow globe he’s holding drops and shatters. And of course [spoiler alert!], Rosebud turns out to be his childhood sled. How many times has Kane thought about Rosebud during his life? We see one precursor, when he’s holding the snow globe in an earlier scene (his wife has just walked out on him) and says its name. There is apparently something about it, some wistful return to innocence, perhaps (before he was yanked away by a lawyer and thrust into the life of plutocracy) that makes him need to connect.

We don’t necessarily have to wait until our deathbeds to recall our own Rosebuds. I think they accompany us and come up every so often for reasons that are as mysterious to us as Kane’s was to the reporters who never did figure out what it meant. The mystery is essential, as is the contrast between the simpler time that it comes from and the complicated grown-up memory that recaptures it.

I’ve been thinking about one of my Rosebuds. In my extreme close-up, my lips might mutter the phrase, “Hurry up… hurry up… cows.”

I’ll make it easy on all the journalists who’ll be trying to work that angle for my obit.

“Hurry up, cows” comes from this little record I had, a 45 rpm. I wish I still owned it, although I suspect if I found it on e-Bay it would be no more than the little vinyl representation of itself, instead of the dream-deepened memory that lives in my mind. Even writing about is dangerous, exposing it to the curatorial manipulation of words.

I remember that it had a voice of its own. At the beginning of one side, a deep male voice, the record’s voice, said, “Ouch! That phonograph needle is too sharp!” And at the beginning of the other side, it giggled and said, “Tee-hee-hee, the fuzz on the record player tickles!” (This was back when turntables were covered with a fuzzy velvet.)

Aside from that, I remember only one other thing, this story-song about a big and little cowboy and a big and little fireman.
Of the firemen, I can recall what they had for supper when they came back to the firehouse. A big and little portion of the same meal: lamb chops; mashed potatoes; some sort of vegetable, probably peas; and for dessert, a bowl of strawberry ice cream.

Even now, many decades later, I think of that as the ideal supper. Lamb chops at one end, strawberry ice cream at the other. If I were requesting my final meal, I might think of that one. But what I’d say before they dropped the gas pellet would have to do with a song the little cowboy sang, probably as he rode among the herd at night, as cowboys always did.

“It makes no difference if I’m small,

Hurry up, hurry up, cows.

It doesn’t matter to me at all,

Hurry up, hurry up, cows.”

I really admired that little cowboy. Or maybe it’s me now who’s admiring him. (With these Rosebuds, it’s not easy to separate the nostalgia from the feeling you’re nostalgic about.) Maybe that feeling hasn’t changed, though. Who wouldn’t admire a tough little cowboy—not a boy, but boy-sized—doing a man’s work and singing, insouciantly.“It makes no difference if I’m small. Hurry up, hurry up, cows.”

I didn’t feel the same admiration for the little fireman. He seems less independent, somehow, of his tall counterpart. I picture them both at the table, eating their strawberry ice cream. But the little cowboy stands alone. The big cowboy doesn’t figure into it. (What was he going to sing, anyway? “It make no difference if I’m tall”?)

Now that I’ve deconstructed this snatch of a memory, I can see why they didn’t devote the whole movie of Citizen Kane to the sled, but rather about six seconds, at the very beginning and the very end, and all the more powerfully so. It helps if you have something venal and corrupt and complex to set against the irony of a sweet, innocent Rosebud.

On the other hand, if you don’t have irony, maybe consistency can work. Am I still yearning to be the cowboy who doesn’t give a shit how he’s perceived, just does his job, focuses on the cows? Yeah, probably. Who wouldn’t, as I said before. And you don’t have to be a kid to want your own herd to look after. Your cows to be in charge of. Writers feel that way about their words, too.

All right, maybe there’s a little irony, of the pathetic kind, in a grown man hungering for the same ideal his six-year-old counterpart hungered after. Maybe I just have to shut up and let the little scratchy record play, with a guitar strumming in the background, and maybe the sound effects of a couple of hundred (small) mooing cows, as I played it in my room and still play it in my head.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


You get the feeling that January 1 would just as soon be what it is, just another pirouette of the planet along the big orbit, taking its turn between 12/31 and 1/2, instead of being feted as The One Millionth Customer with vuvuzelas and shiny tophats and stiltwalkers on Boylston Street. On the other hand, somebody's got to be the first, the one after the last, because we based the calendar on a loop, with a finish immediately followed by another go (don't forget to collect your $200), so why not give it to this hapless fellow who's standing around with his hands in his pockets, surveying the half-melted snow from last Sunday's blizzard: Excuse me, sir? Sir, will you please put on this button? "It says 2011. What's that mean?" That's you, sir! Happy New Year, sir! And everyone lines up behind this poor mook, Jan the First, who always wanted to be at the head of the conga line, and now he is, for one night anyway, the King of the Conga; the next morning he wakes up in a sumptuous bed, with the sun streaming in, and a manservant holding out a robe and a tray with shaving supplies. Breakfast is served in the orangerie. A fresh suit of clothes, the Saturday Times puzzle, a walk through the park, and the conga is over, but everyone seems to know him—Good morning! Happy New Year!—and a few people laughingly pantomime a dance step, to remind him of the night before. It lasts a day, and by nightfall, he's already nostalgic; yet tonight they won't let him back in the townhouse, despite his protestations that he's The King of the Conga, don't you remember? They do, and someone gives him a rose for a boutonniere, for auld lang syne, but the fact is that someone else has a reservation for his suite. But he gets to keep the suit, the button, the rose, and the knowledge that he was the First and no one can take that away. Someone escorts him to the Blue Train, the uptown line. Someone shakes his hand and wishes him a Happy New Year, and it dawns on him that after all, it's time to go.