The Curable Romantic

Dark blues make me frantic

Black jazz brings me down.

Once I was romantic.

Now I stay uptown.

“Harlem Madness” – Fletcher Henderson, Ned Williams, and Irving Mills

519aMi139BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was eaten up with Romanticism when I was a boy. On any number of bright, sunny spring days, perfect for playing outside, you could find me in the cave of my bottom bunk reading The Count of Monte Cristo or The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

I was especially a sucker for doomed protagonists who suffered the perpetual ache of unrequited love, sardonic swashbucklers like Cyrano de Bergerac or Poe’s gloom-devoured intellectuals forever grieving for their lost Lenores. Of course, I didn’t share these somewhat pathological predilections with my friends or family. Maybe if I had, some kind soul might have pointed out that celebrating heartache is unhealthy and Darwinianly ineffective when competing for mates.

A consequence of this peculiar focus is that I developed an anachronistic, almost Victorian, appreciation of females as icons worthy of worship, practicing what Yeats describes in his poem “Adam’s Curse” as “the old high way of love.”*

There have been lovers who thought love should be

So much compounded of high courtesy

That they would sigh and quote with learned looks

Precedents out of beautiful old books;

Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.

“Idle” as in non-productive. In those days, snagging a touchdown pass or smacking a double was a more reliable pathway to a young girl’s heart than penning cliché-ridden verse that doesn’t scan — still is, as a matter of fact.

So I had a string of crushes I worshipped from afar, for example, the beautiful Joanne Elder, whom I would escort around the circumference of Dogwood Circle never daring to clasp her hand and confess my adoration. I had cultivated an ideal medieval maiden in my psyche and projected her onto this not particularly bright but practical girl. Meanwhile, in any number of carport utility rooms and out in the still abundant woods around the subdivision of Twin Oaks, other lees literary 7th graders were learning how to French kiss. I still can clearly remember one day on an overcrowded school bus Joanne writing in the dust on the back door’s window the name of Steve Hoates.

[cue funereal violins]

stones-65Puberty itself was a great help in overcoming the blight of romanticism. I began reading less and listening to music more, Mick Jagger replacing Edmond Dantès as a role model, and despite singles like “As Tears Go By,” many Stones songs were openly dismissive of “the fair sex,” if not downright misogynistic.

My attitude coarsened a bit.

A couple of real live heartbreaks made me realize that the Marvelettes were right about the vast number of fish teeming in the sea of love. I came to realize that when you “got a heartache,” you’re much better off using your fingers to punch in jukebox selections rather typewriter keys.

I figured out that the old Yeats was wiser than younger Yeats. Take it away, Crazy Jane:

`A woman can be proud and stiff

When on love intent;

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.

Cyrano and Me

Cyrano and Me

*Of course, over a half-a-century later, I release this attitude of placing females on pedestals is sexist, a byproduct of the patriarchy, etc, but look up at that less-than-ninety- pound weakling right above this note.  He didn’t know any better.

Hank and Townes: Long Gone Daddies

hank and townesToday, January 1st, marks the anniversary of the deaths of two great American songwriters, Hank Williams in 1953 and Townes Van Zandt in 1997.   In addition to their coincidental departure dates, these two shared a lot in common.

They were both long and lanky long gone daddies with dark hair and eyes, and they both had what my granddaddy called “jug ears.” In fact, judging by these two accompanying photographs, I suspect that a DNA test would discover a shared ancestor in the not too distant past.

cropped hankdrunkcropped townes

More significantly, they also possessed the rare ability to create memorable melodies with song lyrics that can stand alone on a page without musical accompaniment.

First Hank:

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.

He sounds too blue to fly.

The midnight train is whining low.

I’m so lonesome I could cry.

Then Townes:

Everything is not enough.

And nothin’ is too much to bear.

Where you’ve been is good and gone.

All you keep’s the getting there.

Well, to live is to fly, all low and high.

So shake the dust off of your wings

And the sleep out of your eyes.

Theirs was a tragic vision.  To quote Richard Sewell:

[The tragic vision] recalls the original terror, harking back to a world that antedates the conception of philosophy, the consolations of the later religions, and whatever constructions the human mind has devised to persuade itself that the universe is secure. It recalls the original un-reason, the terror of the irrational. It sees man as questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside, and the irreducible facts of suffering and death. Thus it is not for those who cannot live with unresolved questions or unresolved doubts, whose bent of mind would reduce the fact of evil into something else or resolve it into some larger whole.

Like their artistic archetype Edgar Allan Poe, throughout their abbreviated lives, they were besieged by “demonic forces in their own natures,” and like Poe, they attempted to neutralize those demons through drink and more exotic drugs — in Hank’s case, chloral hydrate and barbiturates, and in Townes’s, codeine and heroin.

However, when it comes to self-destruction, I don’t think either EA or Hank could hold a candle to Townes Van Zandt. Supposedly, Poe gambled to augment his stepfather’s meager allowance, but in Townes’s case, his gambling seemed a deep-seated masochistic addiction.

According to John Kruth’s biography, To Live’s to Fly, not only did Van Zandt literally lose shirts off his back, but in one card game, he also lost his gold dental inlays, which he pulled out with pliers and delivered on the spot as payment.   He also had the propensity to give all his hard earned money away to winos after getting paid for a gig.  Like a crazed character out of Dostoyevsky, he seemed to seek out suffering, perhaps for the sake of his art.

 

Year after year,

bottle after bottle,

for the sake of the song,

stumbling full throttle,

gig after gig,

swig after swig,

staggering through life,

for the sake of the song.

 

’97, New Year’s Day,

home from the hospital

he slipped away —

one hand on his heart,

the other on his flask —

the weight of the world

suddenly gone slack,

his windswept world,

forever gone black.

 

Some say he suffered

for the sake of the song,

cultivated sorrow

for the sake of the song.

 

Rot gut, suicides, needles, yellow fever,

all the hurt in the world out West,

took up residence in his hollow heart,

like a stick-stirred rattlesnake’s nest.

 

For the sake of the song,

for the sake of the song,

they say life is short,

but art is long.

 

For the sake of the song,

for the sake of the song,

right might not be right;

wrong might not be wrong.

 

 

RIP, boys.