Monday, June 7, 2010

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Thanks to the miracle of DVR technology, my husband and I got a rare treat this weekend. We had dinner at home and watched the PBS Special on the Library of Congress Gershwin Award for Popular Song given to Paul Simon. Simon and Garfunkel were icons of my youth, heralds of my awakening into the world of adult “freedom,” the land of altered expectations and persistent search for the place of self, meaning and value.

Of course, we’re a little late viewing this. The prize was awarded to him in May 2007. But we’ve been busy. You know how it is. What memories this music brought back to me!

“Sounds of Silence” was released on Simon and Garfunkel’s first album in 1964. I was just a pup, strictly speaking not yet a teenager, but I had been listening to popular radio for years. One Christmas years before, my Dad had given my brother and me a brother-sister set of RCA transistor radios, “newfangled” in their time. My brother’s was green and mine was off-white. They used huge 9-volt batteries that I was pretty sure could electrocute me but touched my tongue to the posts anyway to see if I would get a shock. For a long time my radio graced the headboard of my bed, fashionably fitting into my pink and brown décor. I tuned to my local popular music station in Orlando and can even remember their call sign jingle, “W-L-O-F, Channel 95!”

I tend to mark my musical life in terms of earth-shattering events, basically pre-Beatles and post-Beatles. Even my mom liked “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It was so fresh, so upbeat. You have to remember that not all the music of the early 1960’s was upbeat.

In 1960, one of the big hits was “Tell Laura I Love Her,” the dying words of a teenager stuck in a car crash after racing. Presumably, besides the virtue of selling records, this was a message to kids not to race cars or at least for nice girls not to be smitten by boys who drove too fast. Even as a little kid, I realized the haunting quality of this song. Now Laura’s life was always going to be overshadowed by her late almost-fiancée’s undying love, haunted by a car wreck. Something about the ghost of high school past was a little creepy for me, even if it was actually high school future in my particular case. This was one of the times when I preferred to follow my own advice and learn from the mistakes of others. And what about “Big John?” “At the bottom of this mine lies a big, BIG man. Big John.” And don’t forget “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Yippie-eye-ay. Well, when odd things happen to you when you’re a little kid, validation from outside sources is sort of comforting.

Even the Motown 1964 hit, “Dancing in the Street,” could give me the heebie-jeebies, not because of the lyrics but because of coincidence of timing. The Public Library was remodeling and the kids’ section was closed. I was desperate for a read and picked a book that had kids and dogs on the cover, Where the Red Fern Grows.

OK, in these modern times when we are used to visions of violence on everyday television, this book seems pretty tame. But put it in context, in a world where my brother and I speculated on the color of the shirts worn by the cowboys on Bonanza because we had never seen color TV, where there was a test pattern on the TV if you got up too early and where I thought everyone could see the Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy rocket launches from their front lawn. Well, Red Fern was a little more like “Nightmare on Elm Street.” So if you haven’t read the book this is something of a spoiler alert, but one of the kids in the book, one of the bratty ones, not one of the heroes, gets hurt quite badly with an axe.

I pause for a moment for a little more personal context. When I was three, I wanted to help my parents in the yard one sunny fall day, picked up a dull but heavy stone axe and missed the piece of bark I was aiming for between my feet and planted it in my right foot. For that nanosecond before the pain message went all the way from my little foot to my little consciousness, I stared fascinated by the suddenly revealed inside of my foot, thinking to myself, “Wow, you’d never think there was so much stuff in there.” The pain message arrived, I howled and was carried off to the doctor, got stitches, two lollipops instead of the usual one because it only took six people to hold me down while they treated my foot and received my favorite badge of, uh, courage (ok, klutziness per my brother’s correction), my very cool scar. Even at age three, swept off my feet by my panicky mother who was yelling over her shoulder at my father, likely the assignment of blame phase of the incident, I remember thinking with concern that I probably was also going to get in trouble with the neighbors too because they didn’t like us to make noise on Saturday afternoons while they had their naps. Suffice it to say, that I’m not a big fan of axes now and prefer to let others take their turn when such a tool is required.

So there I am reading Where the Red Fern Grows and listening to the radio which happens to be playing, “Dancing in the Street,” during the goriest thing I’ve ever read in my life, fascinated, horrified, titillated, shaking, ready to shut the book if I can’t take it anymore, and my cat, Misty, jumps on the end of my bed.

I screamed, the book and cat went flying down the hall together and “Dancing in the Street” imprints on my little brain as the No. 1 Most Frightening Song of All Time, with my profuse apologies to Martha and the Vandellas. Well, the cat forgave me, I finished the book and the radio continued to be my constant companion. And, oddly enough, I was seldom afraid of anything that happened to me, normal or paranormal, after that. I became a fan of science fiction and horror.

At one point I considered doing post-graduate work on H. P. Lovecraft, but abandoned him for a more workaday world. I still revel in the story of H. P.’s wedded “bliss” however: Here’s a guy who lived with his aunts, stayed up all night with the shades drawn and slept all day, wrote some really twisted stuff and, uncharacteristically, he marries the girl of his dreams. All was not roses with the Lovecrafts, apparently, for soon thereafter, they officially and mutually agreed to continue their relationship “by correspondence.” Ya’ gotta love them odd ducks. And I reflect that I may be a duck of some similar persuasion, more likely Daffy than Donald or Daisy.

While I loved the Beatles, the Kinks, the whole British Invasion, I was also mad for Simon and Garfunkel. Popular music had always held both a light and dark side for me, but I held the secret of that darkness within me. If I couldn’t tell my family about my paranormal experiences, a simple discussion of Big John or Laura and her dead boyfriend was just as taboo. I was a little blonde, blue-eyed fluffy girl that my mom wanted to be a fashion model to dress up in pinafores and petticoats and black patent leather Mary Janes. It was really clear that the real me, who saw both darkness and light, was most certainly not OK with the fam.

Paul Simon’s songs embraced the difficulties of balancing dark and light. Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. And somehow, I felt my inner journey, like the Hermit with his Lamp, seeking truth in the darkness, alone, wasn’t so lonely. I was OK with me even if it scared my mom. I persisted in my connection to the Other, wherever, whatever it is and learned not to frighten my parents with the sounds I heard in silence.

They’re delicate creatures, you know.

Best wishes.

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