I am not so bold to claim that this post in and of itself is anywhere near fantastic. Instead, I use that word in a title because yesterday I was confronted with the fact that I’ve been using it entirely too often when I speak. I had an idea of creating short podcast episodes about my favorite songs. I am wont to offer a small anecdote in connection to songs I like, so I figured that I could just improvise the content of an introduction to any of my favorites.
I vastly overestimated how well I could fill a couple minutes of air time. I used the word fantastic no less than four times in two minutes and 27 seconds, and I lost count of how often I made the umm sound. I have a newfound respect for anyone who can spontaneously fill airtime on radio or TV. There’s nothing natural about it.
I am devoting my first “Favorite Songs” mini-episode to “The Unforgettable Fire” by U2, and this post is my script.
I neglected “The Unforgettable Fire” for the first 32 years I owned the album of the same name. I bought it with my allowance money way back in 1987, when I was finishing up junior high in a cloud of Aqua Net. Back then, I just didn’t have the patience for the title track with its slow, ambient beginning. I actually had the album cover hanging in my high school locker. Anton Corbijn’s red-filtered black and white photo on the album cover proved to be deeply influential in my love of photography. The daily sight of that image slowly taught me that photos can leave deep impressions, and I took up photography with a small hope that I could one day create images that lingered deep in the viewer’s memory.
I didn’t love the single “The Unforgettable Fire” until I stumbled upon it in my Facebook feed a couple years ago. There was a retrospective clip of U2 that featured it, and I immediately wondered how I could have missed such a (umm) fantastic song.
I love everything about it except the bridge that that hasn’t aged well with its 80’s sledgehammer drums and synth. Its momentum makes it a near perfect driving song. Actually I’ve listened to it in my car a hundred or more times in the past two years. I love its deep ambivalence, and I doubt that my teenage self would have related too well to loving someone who is very flawed, to wanting that beloved to both leave and come back.
I’ve taken very few photos during the pandemic, as if I could dampen the strength of my memories of this time by avoiding my camera. Of course, this strategy did not succeed in its goal. Instead, I missed taking photos of people and places that I can no longer see physically in the present tense. A few buildings I meant to capture burned down or were demolished. Wind storms knocked over some trees or pruned them ruthless abandon. I also lost someone most dear to me, my mother.
I regret that I took hardly any pictures of family during the past year. If you are blessed to have still-living parents or grandparents, I recommend the habit of taking pictures of each of them on a regular basis. Better yet, record video and audio of them. I wish I had videos and audio of my mom. What I would give to have audio of her colorful commentary when she’d hate-watch her least favorite politicians!
While the pandemic is by no means over, I am ready to venture forth with camera in hand again. Today I took a few photos near downtown Lima, but my camera had lain idle for so long that its battery lost its charge early in the walk.
Speaking of the pandemic itself, I don’t have a job that can be done effectively from home, so I’ve been reporting to work as usual. During height my state’s stay-at-home order a year ago, there was the weirdness of near-empty streets on my way to work. Then we had a motley crew of workers who came and went, some who decided to take a gap year from college, others who seemed to have emerged from cocoons after unknown seasons of dormancy. My husband once told me that the greatest unused band name of all time is Scrotum. I think all of the future members of Scrotum were working around me last summer, including a young fellow who looked like a corn-fed Adam Clayton circa the October album. There was also a guy who looked like an equal fusion of Sammy Hagar and Gallagher, but he evaporated from the scene too quickly to acquaint himself with the future band members.
Today was the day I finally remembered to buy a digital copy of “Empty Garden” by Elton John. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote it in tribute to John Lennon. I’ve seldom heard this song on the radio, and when I do, it tends to happen in scenarios plagued by poor radio reception, like waiting for a stop light to change between two semi trucks. I’m surprised that I haven’t had a dream that I’ve been airdropped in wilds of Alaska with a transistor radio tuned a station a thousand miles distant, and I can barely pick out that song through the fuzz. In the dream, I’d have the volume turned all the way up just to hear Elton John, but some moldly oldy like “Precious and Few” by Climax would break in from a closer station and temporarily deafen me with its sweetness.
I didn’t pick “Precious and Few” at random. Something like that did happen to me about 30 years ago when I was travelling across Wyoming. I was thrilled to hear “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, another song that used to elude me on the radio, and I had the sudden, impossibly loud interruption of “Precious and Few”. Since my ears were too shocked to listen to much, I talked one of my travel companions into singing “Precious and Few” with me for the next 20 miles, an annoying feat which we repeated in the absence of radio reception several times over that cross-country trip. How we knew the lyrics and key change is a mystery to me. Perhaps we knit this knowledge from various K-Tel album commercials.
I’ve lingered too long on the foregoing tangent, so I will return to the Elton John’s song that I remembered to buy today. Hearing the song more clearly has lessened a bit of its mystique for me. It kind of reminds me of when I was a student at Duke and first saw Christian Laettner in person. Since writing and mailing letters was still common in those days, I wrote a letter to a friend letting her know that Laettner wasn’t as attractive in person as he appeared on television. Her reply to my claim was memorable: “Don’t f*ck with the fantasy.”
Thus in buying the song I’ve accidentally diminished the production quality of a daydream I harbored in the early 80s. In that waking dream of my eight-year-old self, I wondered how the world might be different had the fates of two famous victims of gun violence been reversed. What if Lennon survived and Reagan perished? Their shootings happened very close in time, less than four months apart, and these stories loomed large in my grade-school world.
Now that I listened to “Empty Garden” several times today, I realize that question still intrigues me. How would the world be different if the fates of Lennon and Reagan had been reversed? Would George Bush the Elder have continued Reagan’s agenda so early in the regime? Would Lennon have gracefully landed in the realm of Has-Beens? Would labor unions be in such decline in the U.S. had Reagan not been around to quash the air traffic controller’s strike that happened later in 1981?
I suppose there’s not much point to exploring such veins of alternate history. The best scenario of all would be if neither shooting had happened. It’s possible John Lennon could have created his best work in protest of the Reagan era.
The music of childhood can resonate for years. There are some songs from those years that can evoke just how I felt the first time I heard a particular song. Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” is one of them.
I think I was watching a rainstorm from the picture window of our living room in suburban Indianapolis when I first heard that one. The photo above was taken right around the same time; Snoopy was my likely companion for this reverie, too. I recall that the song transported me to a wistful feeling that was novel at the time, like I was longing for the future as someone older might long for a time in the past. I sensed that rainy days were good for solitude so one could reflect on curious feelings and things, like what happened to the toy elephant in that made several appearances in the pictures of my sister taken before I was born? One of my earliest memories was breaking something, like the sound of its shattering awoke me into conscious memory. Had I broken that elephant?
The song itself seems to be just as lost in time as my feelings were on that day. I feel like there’s an underlying sense of the British trying to find their place in a postcolonial world. That has little relevance to a American in the Midwest, except that sometimes I do feel like I am living in an outpost of a bygone empire.
Today has been just as rainy as that afternoon when I watched the storm from the picture window of our living room in the late 70’s. I heard this song as I drove home from work today and knew that it was the right music for this day that was 40 years in the future from that afternoon.
Country music is like root beer. If you do not acquire a taste for it in your early days, it stands little chance of being loved. I rarely heard country music while I was growing up, so most of it sounds like maudlin static to me. I blamed Garth Brooks most of all for the great country infestation of pop radio. In the end, I think pop won that siege. When I hear country radio these days (almost never intentionally), it sounds like pop dressed in pedal steel, arpeggios and twang.
Pair Garth Brooks and KISS, and there’s a combo burrito of two brands of macho I can barely stand. I don’t want a dude in spandex wearing a top that looks like an underwire bra for his chest hair singing about licking anything. Even less do I want to see a man wearing a belt buckle big enough to cut him in two strut around on stage.
I’m not sure why I didn’t seek the nearest fallout shelter when they appeared on stage together twenty-two years ago. I figured that a song from a tribute album called Kiss My Ass might be worth a listen. Back then, I suspected that the pairing was so absurd it could work, and it did.
“Hard Luck Woman” suits Garth Brooks so well that it’s hard to believe that this song wasn’t written for a country singer in the first place.
I guess I shouldn’t blame for Garth Brooks for rise of country music into the mainstream. Along with bands like the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS helped open the ears of America to songs about trucks, tractors and badadonka donk donks.