He Is Not: Liner Notes



“He is Not” is at the heart of my order of things.

That’s about “the old man” who died in 2006 though it’s not about him in any particular sort of way, excepting perhaps the line:

He left the room without making a sound
Nobody noticed till the orderly made his rounds…

That is true and particular to the old man (though I am sure also to many others who die in those “homes”). For the rest it’s much more generic.

Somehow he just slipped out of time
Leaving only his remains behind
An odd assortment of odds and ends
Fingernails, toes, teeth and skin….

Those are pretty generally the remains of anybody. So the emphasis ends up being much more on the “not” and not on the “He.”

You can’t say that he moved on
Cause there’s no place for him to be gone
He didn’t fly high. He didn’t sink low
No, he didn’t have nowhere to go…

When one is no longer, one is NOT, and that’s that.

Oh time is a mighty tide
It carries us far it carries us wide
It is the beating heart of the stars…
If you can still see’em you still are.

We should occasionally remember that.

BUT HE’S NOT.
OH HE’S NOT
AIN’T NO X GONNA MARK THE SPOT WHERE HE’S NOT.

That last bit–ain’t no x–may, with its postmodern under erasure feel, be overly clever. But I still like it.

Out of the Blue: Liner Notes

Once, years ago, I read that, when one gets old, one gets to having lots of memories. Those old guys sitting on the benches in front of the courthouse weren’t doing nothing. They were remembering. I remember thinking when I read that back then that, well, maybe old age would have some benefits. One would remember, in any case. I was still thinking like that when I wrote “Out of the Blue” five or six years ago. Then, five or six years ago, the memories weren’t coming back. Things have changed since then; they have started popping up all the time, and I wish they wouldn’t. I think more like William Blake now, “Drive your plow through the bones of the dead.” And I have the refrain of a song yet and perhaps never to be written: And now I am wondering/ Better to Remember? Better to Forget?

So I don’t know now that I could write “Out of the Blue.” But I still like it. I think it is neurologically accurate too. Brain science says that when the brain is idle or more exactly in neutral, when one is “wool gathering,” that’s when the brain gets involved in making up the self (making connections, telling stories). So the self arises when the mind is not occupied with an immediate task.

Theses lines are intended to evoke a dreamy state:

When the rain obscures the horizon
And the wheels hiss on the road
And the darkness is descending
And you’ve got miles and miles left to go…

Or:

When the wind is just a whisper
And something in the shadows stirs
And you forget what you are doing
And your mind becomes a blur…

Those are times, brain science says, when the brain is relatively disengaged that memories might pop up.

And the third stanza is about memory and aging:

Now that autumn is upon you
And you’re raking up the leaves
The spell of smoke is in the air
And it’s finally time to grieve…

That’s a bit too discursive, and really I underestimated when I wrote the song the degree of grief involved in remembering.

Better to remember? Better to forget?

You tell me.

Country Song: Liner Notes

According to Willie Nelson, “Three Chords and the Truth–That’s What a Country Song Is.” Well, it that’s true, this song is half way to being a country song, since it has those three chords, and only three. The “truth” part is a harder call, though this song is based, as was “The Curse,” on a true story or rather on multiple true stories, since I am sure this story is told in one way or another many times a day, around Nashville and probably in rural China too. But then we hedged our bets a little. The refrain runs:

Heading down that long road
All I got is gone
Feels like I am stuck inside
A real BAD country song….

So if we ain’t got the truth…or hit it somehow…it could still be a country song, though a REAL BAD one, making allowances though for that particular inflection in the sixties when BADD meant GOOD.

So perhaps the truth is ambiguous. And while it might not be the truth exactly, I do pride myself on having imparted at least a little social realism and immediate relevance with:

We’d lived too long on credit
Up to our necks in debt
When everything had been sold
There wasn’t nothing left…

A reference again to hard times. At one point I worked a yard sale into the song, but the rhyme didn’t work out.

And finally I can’t think of being stuck inside something without thinking of Dylan’s “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”

The Curse: Liner Notes

The curse is based on a true story.

Way back when I was a kid in shorts, at a time when only kids wore shorts and, as a kid, you looked forward to the day you got long pants, in Ora, South Carolina (circa 1950), my uncle, a teenager, who lived across the field from us would call out, “Come here, Nicky. I got something to show you,” and I would round the corner and there he would be chopping the head off a chicken. I don’t know how many times he pulled that one or how many times I fell for it, but the phrase “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” has for me a specific graphic meaning having seen, as I have, that chicken running around the yard with its head still over there on the tree stump and there was something just awful about that.

But one time, he calls out and I round the corner and there’s no chicken. Instead, a snake is hanging down the side of the chicken coop and uncle is laughing up a storm, like it’s a real thigh slapper or something, seeing the fix this egg thieving snake has got itself into. For it had crawled into the coop, and swallowed a wooden egg, which, as I understand, was used to induce the hens to “brood,” and having swallowed that egg could not get back out the same knot hole it came in through. So “The Curse” is a true story up to this point, for, while, in the song, I let him wither on the vine as it were, in fact uncle picked up an ax and cut the snake in half and squeezed the wooden egg right out of the tail section, plop! onto the ground.

So what’s this little story? What is it about? Well, not much of anything except that it happened. The snake of course is a mighty symbolic creature, what with Adam and Eve and all, and the idea that the snake was cursed (by not being able to go in reverse; and us too cursed by our irreversibility (can’t go out the way we come in)) has theological implications. But lest the meanings get too thick, I tried to thin it all out with: “Never bite off more than you can chew/And never swallow anything that’s bigger than you.”

Speaking of snakes that got stuck, my wife spoke with a woman in Columbia, SC, who was going into the bathroom to take care of nature’s needs, when a huge gopher jumped out of her toilet followed in hot pursuit by a large snake. She rushed out of the bathroom to call the animal protection people, as the snake rushed the gopher, and when they got back in the bathroom, no gopher was present. Rather the tale of the snake was sticking up out of the toilet. Guess what? It got stuck trying to go out the way that it come in.

snake egg.jpg

I claim in the song that “ain’t no snake ever born could go in reverse.”  I am not sure that is biologically true.  Some claim that sea snakes can go in reverse.  Maybe.  But somehow “ain’t no land snake ever born could go in reverse” lacks the impact I desired.

Lighthouse of Love: Liner Notes

While not exactly joyous, the CD I made in 2008, Sea of Love, was at least about love which is generally viewed as a positive thing. Most of the other songs I had written in the four years before that and in the three years since have been depressing. So when I set about writing a few new songs for “The Tingles,” I felt a vague urge to give a nod backwards, as it were, to the more positive love stuff before plunging, in the cuts to follow, straight into the darkness. Still the song takes a while to get to the light starting, as it does, with a plunge into darkness:

When all of a sudden the bottom it falls out
And all of your certainty turns into doubt
And all your expectations turn out to be a hoax
And all of the promises are just dirty jokes

Looming back there in my mind not too far of course when I wrote these lines was the sudden economic collapse the dust of which still settles around us, as we appear even to be sinking deeper.

The lyrics then plunge on into the darker, if not slightly more metaphysical, waters with:

When there ain’t no signal coming down from above
When all is lost in the raging flood.

Katrina too was not that far back in my mind, what with the “raging flood.” But finally a turn if not to optimism at least to the possibility of something other than utter darkness:

Keep a weather out eye
For the lighthouse of love…

There’s a good deal of watery nautical stuff in this; “weather eye”? –You ask.

I don’t know where that came from except perhaps all those Captain Hornblower books I read in junior high. But it was very important back in the day of the clipper ship to–no matter what else one might be doing or even however important that might be–nonetheless, keep a weather eye out because the weather at sea and the failure to attend to it can be a life and death matter. So the song does end with a glimmer, like the lighthouse itself, of–if not hope–at least the possibility of it.

A Note

Friends gave me a copy of Ellen Schrecker’s The Lost Soul of Higher Education for my 65th birthday, and I read it cover to cover while working out on an elliptical machine. Nothing much new in it, at least to me; I have lived through much of the history she recounts, though I wasn’t really conscious during the McCarthy Era. Aside from that (she writes a good deal about attacks on academic freedom), the book was more like a trip down painful memory lane. Not depressing exactly, since, in effect, I was pre-depressed (before the reading) by what I have observed over the last 30 plus years. I suppose you could say the read simply affirmed what I had observed and conjectured. There’s always a bit of pick-me-up in being affirmed, even if what is being affirmed is negative. Maybe that was why–I can’t think of any other reason–I decided to email the author and tell her I had read her book and appreciated it. So I found her email address at Yeshiva University and sent her a note. She emailed back saying my note had made her day. That’s nice to think I had helped to make somebody’s day, and it didn’t take that much effort either. I think I should do that more often, email the author of the books I read. Though I don’t read many books these days, and many of the authors I tend to read are dead. So you can’t email them.

Dermatology Again

Ever since I developed that cancerous (squamous) cell on my upper lip and had it excised–some twenty-five years ago–I have seen a dermatologist annually. I have seen the one I saw today for about ten years; I don’t know where the previous one went to or remember what he looked like. But this guy and I…we are growing old together. He looks less young each time I see him; his hair is really thinning with male pattern baldness (somehow related to the depletion of testosterone). One thing remains the same. He has never been on time for an appointment. He always runs twenty minutes late. One day I came in early and I thought maybe I was his first patient, but he was fifteen minutes late for that.

Today, my appointemt was for 9:20 and I had another appointment, not five minutes away, at ten. No big deal. But I wanted to be on time, if only because I always am.

There I sat in the office in my “gown,” as they call it. Here, they say, put on this gown. I don’t know that the nurse would have said that but for the fact I said I was there to have the dermatologist check out my body. Sometimes I only have to talk off my shirt. So there I am all sagged down and slumping on that table thing in my gown, and I am not really pissed off. Not like I sometimes get. Tense in the face and toe tapping pissed at the wait. I am more like numb with anxiety. But damn I have been waiting 25 minutes, so I get up and go to the door, thinking I will call out and see what’s up.

I open the door and there he stands. He apologies for the wait perfunctorily, and I say equally perfunctorily, is OK. And he launches into something about dermatologists waging a war on melanoma. That freaks me out immediately because I think he must have spotted one. But no, maybe he has just been to a conference on melanoma because it turns out, as he looks me over, that there’s nothing really alarming.

“You have few moles,” he says. “Yea,” I say, “I am blessed that way.”

Then, on cue, out comes the liquid nitrogen.

“May I,” he says pointing at something on the back on my hand. What am I going to say? No?

So he starts blasting away.

He’s finishing up when I point out the red spot on the tip of my nose that he tried to get rid of last time, but it didn’t go away, and he starts into talking about how the only way to tell if it’s cancer is to biopsy–which freaks me out–and then he starts blasting away at the tip of my nose, so now six hours later I have this big ugly pustule on the tip of my nose.

So, I say, in effect, A-OK? Hoping for some reassurance given the melanoma scare.

“You look great,” he says with some enthusiasm and then qualifies the hell out of it with, “for the kind of people I am used to seeing.”

Now what the hell does that mean. What kind of people is he seeing?

But I will take what I can get.

By now it’s eight minutes to ten. The whole exam took a little over five minutes.

Seemed like forever.

Is Busy Dying