In the ineffable non-space where time, memory, and dreams flow over and through each other, while photons and tachyons travel forward and backward through time faster than the speed of light - leaving no evidence of their imagined existence - our primordial neurons attempt to decipher clues – on a page, or music passing through space, or an oblique ray of light whose shadows tug on memory the way the sea pulls ribbons of light from the horizon – from the shattered pieces of ephemera that glint in random patterns like gamma-ray bursts of something half-remembered, things sometime connect.
A few years ago, somewhere in the news – let's say the New York Times – I read about Kosovo breaking away from Serbia to declare its independence. While reading the details, some piece of memory inserted itself into the text – into the reality of the moment. I remembered a poem about Dubrovnik, a port city in (the former) Yugoslavia. The connection was vague but haunting. I searched through my neglected books of poetry crammed into the shelves like static universes waiting to be re-imagined.
In the stack was a thin paperback - a collection of poems by Arthur Gregor called A Bed by the Sea. So old was the scant volume that the original price of $1.95 in the upper right corner of the cover was oddly disturbing. The second poem in the collection, following a poem entitled Intangibles, was one, sure enough, called Dubrovnik. The first stanza of the fourth verse begins with the line:
This flow of what we cannot name, (and continues)
this depth behind the visible scenes,
this mold where we are locked in place,
that is the smile on a face in dreams,
carved smile of bliss on a wooden face:
The poem is long and evocative, beautiful and worthy of examination. However, it wasn't particularly the poem, but its implications and long forgotten, youthful interpretations that came forward from some infinite past, and intruded like a fat uncle into my morning. We all experience these Proustian, epiphanic moments – some with more complex, gossamer tendrils of interconnectedness than others – but what truth, if any, is at the center of these glimpses?
In Jorge Luis Borges' parable Everything and Nothing, a man is contemplating the fact that he is no one:
"There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resemble no other) and his words,…"
As the reader has suspected, in the last paragraph it is revealed that this person is Shakespeare:
History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: "I, who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself." The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: "Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one."
Last evening we (M. & I) went to a late show (late for me – after a day at the office – as sleep-deprived as Hillary Clinton) at the Regattabar in Cambridge to hear Bill Frisell and the 858 Quartet (featuring Eyvind Kang, Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinman). Bill was, of course, on guitar and sonic devices, with Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and the amazing Hank Roberts on cello. A live music performance is essentially the evanescent expression of the ineluctable and futile grasp of words that preceded these – transporting, evocative, immediate and immediately dissipating (an emblem of time that is beyond metaphor), excruciatingly personal – without the constraints of logic or the need of an imprimatur.
Our seats were, in effect, on stage; I could have reached out and touched the cello from which Hank Roberts frenetically bowed, plucked, strummed, slapped, and coerced chords and basso continuo and empyrean melodies that overlapped and commingled like the time, memory, and dreams alluded to in the first sentence. The songs were familiar – Monroe, Boubacar, We are Everywhere, Monk's Jackieing – but the arrangements and transmutations (and extemporaneous extrapolations) were very unfamiliar, surprising, and an apotheosis of their original forms. To say the music was eclectic would be an impotent cliché. In the parlance of a movie critic, one might say it was Allison Krause meets Schoenberg meets Ry Cooder meets Philip Glass meets Mingus meets Ali Farka Toure meets Brahms…this could go on. Like the individual notes that recombined like atoms or DNA to form the synthesis of sound – how does one remember sound? – my thoughts and memories coalesced with everyone's in the room only to be immediately erased by time. We were all connected yet separated by infinity; a stranger at our table crunched his pita chips and spinach/artichoke dip and I was sucked through a wormhole into a present that I wanted to wholly reject. No need – that too was gone.
The final song of the set – before the gift of an encore – was a cover of Burt Bacharach's & Hal David's, What the World Needs Now is Love. It was almost the tag of a long, labyrinthine piece that had gone through many permutations to arrive at this point of ironic familiarity. Frisell played in octaves and block chords, embellished with synthesized, sonic devices, while the strings accompanied and flourished in a classic, string quartet (trio?) mode – at least briefly, until they took the song on a journey into another dimension before returning it to the library of semblance and tonality as comforting as the Dewey Decimal system wrapped in a sustained G-Major chord.
I had heard Bill Frisell end with this song before in concerts or shows, with other of his many, diverse groups. Frisell has a droll and disarming stage presence and humor; the choice of the song as a crowd-pleasing ending always seemed appropriate and adroit. But his music is also cerebral and challenging at times. What the World Needs Now is Love was released in 1965 – the Vietnam war was escalating, as President Lyndon B. Johnson had just increased U.S. troops from 75,000 to 125,000. The Anti-war movement was nascent as 35,000 protestors marched on Washington. Bill Frisell would have been 14 when he first heard this song.
The flow of what I can not name overtook the moment and space of the room as I listened, overtook my thoughts and compressed memory and time into a lingering question without an answer – not a conundrum, but more like an unjust verdict. How had we gotten here from there? How did all of those tragic deaths not still haunt us and stop us from committing the same atrocities again, destroying lives and the very existence of a country, again, this time in Iraq. Here it was – a generational protest song (the Beatles would record All You Need is Love two years later), trenchant in its implications. Three years after Jackie Del Shannon sang the song on Shindig, the Democrats would have such a fractiousprimary season (including the assassination of Bobby Kennedy) that they would forfeit their whole anti-war majority and lose to the law and order Republican – "Tricky" Dick Nixon in 1968. And here we are.
In the presidential election of 1972 Nixon was re-elected by crushing his anti-war, Democratic opponent George McGovern. Nixon promised that "peace was at hand" in Vietnam. On April 30th, 1975 Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese – we lost the war; 52,000 American soldiers died; 1,200,000 South Vietnamese died; we would never forget (?) And here we are.
Nixon would create the modern imperial presidency, expanding executive powers and circumventing the Constitution. After the Watergate Hearings and Nixon's resignation how could we ever allow another president to usurp the very raison d'être of our nation? And here we are. Nixon used the power of impoundment, refusing to spend billions of already federally allocated dollars, and expanding the power of the Office of Management and Budget. Several years ago, the Bush administration granted vast new authorities for the Federal Reserve. And here we are.
43 years since the song offered its naïve/profound refrain. Bush 43. The melody and its temporal and unique journey will come to a final point of repose. On the dark drive home from Boston to Providence, my wife and I will talk about the music and listen to a mix of Frisell playing randomly from an iPod. The flow of what we can not name is infinite and everywhere. Writing this shadow of a memory has already itself become an act of quiet desperation , with the song still in me. Later that night, the child I will comfort and protect in my dream doesn't exist. In the morning when I check my email, I will be surprised to find a message from a young man for whom I used to work. I created the wine list for the bistro that grew out of his cheese emporium. For a time I worked as the manager and host and sommelier. He had been driving home from work listening to Eric in the Evening, a weeknight jazz program that plays on the Boston Public Radio station, and thought of me. The flow of what we can not name -
It is good to be remembered. There is a past somewhere in which the smell of cheese combines with all manner of epicurean redolence, the tinkling of glassware and of cutlery-upon-porcelain punctuates a rising and falling dirge of conversation above which an implication of music strains to be heard, and faces familiar and unfamiliar smile upon me like old friends with a favor to ask – and I am the host and master-of-ceremonies of this brief performance.
While these following examples are only illusions of what once was real, and while they do not even replicate the extant form in which we heard the music (The 858 Quartet's new recording Sign of Life is playing now), they nevertheless imply what was almost there.
There is another past in which I am a waiter at a restaurant who is fascinated by the ink drawings on the arm of another young man who works there who is an artist, a ray of light in a dark room, and the only one at the party not wearing a tuxedo.
In yet another past, I am in a basement where I have a small keyboard on my lap that is just barely not a toy, and I am trying to coax notes and harmonies from it to accompany a young man who is strumming a guitar and singing – a troubadour of lost souls.