Searching in Dreamland
Where music takes us
Originally published on November 23, 2007, in the Austin Chronicle
There are some simple truths about life. There are also far more complicated ones; still, for the most part, life is not moored in such understandable ways. Everything is moving too quickly, too slowly, or not moving in the turmoil of daily life at its most mundane. Uncertainty and confusion, along with a focus on just moving forward, finds one with few contemplative moments.
When a simple truth and a life event align, it is a time of defining pleasure, if only for a breath. Knowing who you are and where allows a certain relaxation. Bigger truths rarely provide any respite. Trying to clarify cause and effect in one's life is as necessarily dishonest as plotting the chronology of events and/or relationships. By necessity more is left out than included when something that happens in time and space, involving layers of varied emotions and perceptions, focused by one's outlook, offers just a shadow of what happened, losing meaning, resonance, nuance, and shading.
All this by way of getting to somewhere quite far away by the end of this column. Unfortunately, I really do have to write my way to where I'm going, though usually I just jettison these introductions. It being Thanksgiving, a gift for those who detest this column seemed appropriate. Now, it's almost always best to start at the beginning, which usually really is a beginning – a place where you've chosen to start. This column begins in the muck, drenched in mud and stinking of dead vegetation, without getting all that much better.
The story here has to begin in one of the three dormitories that made up Boston University's West Campus, which in 1968 was directly adjacent to the football field. (Where this column is going is still not close but does emanate from here.) A friend and I had gone down to the lobby of the dorm to the "coffee shop," where snacks were sold, which was just an enclosed space in the brick-and-linoleum vastness of the building, distinguished only by its very low lighting.
Stopping at the jukebox, we looked over the available selections. Alan and I, having just met, were just getting to know each other, this budding friendship anchored by a love of rock as much as anything. Serious fans of the Byrds, we had discussed how perplexing we found Sweetheart of the Rodeo, their new album. Country music in and of itself represented an encyclopedia's worth of stereotypes and caricatures to us Northern kids, and this was a country album. Even more upsetting was that it was by the Byrds, although down to only two original members, who through five albums released in three years had not only mapped the new frontiers of rock but had also continually expanded beyond them. Now they were playing country music. After a cursory first listen, I had not listened to the record again.
One of the jukebox's selections was Woody Guthrie's song "Pretty Boy Floyd," as covered by the Byrds from Sweetheart. While continuing to look at the available songs, we played it. We both ended up listening intently; we played no more selections, instead taking the elevator back up to Alan's dorm room to listen to Sweetheart of the Rodeo – over and over and over.
This was the beginning of a shared journey through American music over the next half-decade that was crucial in defining my tastes and interests for the rest of my life. Listening to music was life-defining then – an experience that was political, romantic, social, and/or poetic. Music was a breathing tube to the surface, a lamp held up to guide us onward through the fog. Music was so important that much of our time was spent in efforts at discovery – not just in finding out about new bands or new albums by favorite bands but by exploring the root system of rock, which was almost every form of American music that came before it.
Alan's and my personal relationship often got rocky and occasionally even ugly, but listening to music together was always removed from that turbulence. Alan was always an enthusiastic and reliable partner, interested in learning about music but also continually awestruck by it, regularly experiencing a rebirth of wonder.
Alan visited me once when I was going to college in Putney, Vt. Inevitably, by early evening a bunch of my friends had joined us at a local bar, where we swapped stories and told lies. During the course of the evening, Alan took to talking about his family's ski château, halfway across the state at Mount Snow, with much love and affection, evoking more than one vein of magic. At the urging of my friends and to the sheer delight of Alan, we decided on the spur of the moment to visit.
Living in Putney, we celebrated the rustic and rural. Vermont was a very poor state at the time, which caused great hardship to its citizens but also left many of the state's farms, barns, buildings, and old towns intact, if often empty. I was living in an old farmhouse that I breathed in deeply, feeling its age and freshness.
After stopping to buy more groceries than should be legal, we finally made it to the château. Now, I had been uncertain about my friends' enthusiasm for this visit, as they were among the most back-to-the-earth people I knew – with teepees, dogs, and uncut hair, happily disappearing into the woods on snowshoes even during drenching snowstorms. I knew that Alan's family's place was just one of many "châteaux" in developments surrounding the ski areas of Mount Snow.
Having been there several times, I regarded the place as just another residential-development building, though in an unusually beautiful area. My insensitivity and personal preoccupation are legendary, but at the time my level of clueless, naive disinterest in what was going on around me was at its all-time high. It had not even crossed my mind that, as Alan was euphorically describing the place, my friends were seeing a house far more out of Heidi than Long Island. Saying they were disappointed is an understatement.
There being considerable alcohol and tons of food, all was soon forgotten as we took to preparing an enormous, elaborate breakfast meal, though dawn was still hours away. Alan, after getting the stereo to work, played all kinds of records.
Sometime in the course of all this, he put on the first Moby Grape album. This was by no means the first time I had heard it, but this was the time that it put its hand on my head, which filled me with the spirit while knocking me down. The extraordinary ambition and beauty of the album got to me. I insisted Alan play it again. And then again.
Over time, Moby Grape has proven to be among the very few albums that continued to sound just ice-ripping fresh every time they're listened to, even if hundreds if not thousands of times. Most amazing is that sometimes it smacks me on the head again as though I've never heard it before.
Now, in a future, though no more cohesive, column (if not a feature article), I'm planning on going into great detail about why the very first cut on the album is one of the truly revolutionary songs of all time, from its tearing opening on. This is true even though the lyrics are "Hey Grandma you're so young/Your old man is just a boy/Been a long time this time POW, POW, POW." But that explanation is not for here or now.
Back then it was impossible not to be aware of Led Zeppelin. Even though not a major fan, I was familiar enough with the band's music because it was played constantly and everywhere. Still, I neither knew their albums very well nor awaited any of them with any sense of expectation. I devoured every bit of information that I could find on the groups that I loved. Led Zeppelin was not one of these. I knew their hit songs and the names of the members but not much else. I was certainly unimpressed by golden pretty boy Robert Plant.
Over the years, however, just regularly hearing Zeppelin's music, I've become much more of a fan (though never crossing over to actually buying the back catalog). In 2002, Robert Plant released Dreamland, a solo album that included songs by not only Tim Buckley and the Youngbloods but by Grape mainstay Skip Spence, as well.
This encouraged me to listen to more Plant and Zeppelin, a state that was considerably elevated when Chronicle Music Editor Raoul Hernandez gave me a CD of Plant covering four Moby Grape songs. Closely listening to Plant sing, with Zeppelin and solo, I realized how oblivious I had been, once again missing the obvious – that Plant started as a terrific singer who then become extraordinary. I offer this not as a revelation, as most of you are well aware of it, but just a point about what you can miss if you're searching too hard.
There are some simple truths in my life. Music leads to music but should never lead to excluding music – because I love one genre doesn't mean I shun any other. Music can take me places where I want to go that I can't get to otherwise. The right music playing in the car, with the fresh smell of morning outside, is often more than enough.
There are these truths. Almost never at peace and never calm through so much of my life, I finally learned the joy in the absence of anxiety, emotion, thought, and preoccupation. When I kick "I" out of "I," it immediately gets better. There is no better way to do this than by listening to music.
Driving to work this morning, listening to the extraordinary new recording by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, I did not think about this. I did not reflect on the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Vermont, the first Moby Grape album, or Robert Plant. I did not think but listened, shutting my mouth and mind. The music was the only and the all of everything as it flowed over me, sinking into my body, liberating the meager sense of joy and excitement not yet extinguished. I was young, I was old, and I wasn't there, just listening. Music can make one's life so much better, and this morning it did so for mine.