Remembering The Past So You Don’t Have To

I’ve had a sobering experience.

In the interest of clearing shelf space, but really because I fancied myself a messianic figure dispensing sheer joy and pleasure to a larger universe, I decided to give away about 200 of my old CDs. (Bet you can see where this is going!) It was at a family gathering, and the recipients of my glad tidings were to be my three nieces, my sister, and the husband of one of my nieces — we’ll call him Charles. Ever since I had known Charles he had displayed a remarkable knowledge of “old music.” Forty years after Jim Morrison had not only faked his own death in Paris but cleverly outwitted the guys who performed the autopsy, here was Charles, on December 17, 2010, informing me as I arrived at a Christmas party that today Captain Beefheart had died. I did not know this. I wasn’t even sure I knew who Captain Beefheart was, until I remembered the cover of a record he released in 1969. The record was called Trout Mask Replica.

In those years it was customary to carefully study a record’s cover as many times as you could before purchasing it. I must have picked up Trout Mask Replica half a dozen times — the cover is of a man with a Quaker hat whose face is replaced by a fish — but I never did buy it. Nor do I think I’ve heard in my lifetime more than a couple of minutes of Captain Beefheart’s music, other than the vocals he lays down on Frank Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp” on Zappa’s Hot Rats album. (If you think I’m crazy, Rolling Stone in 2003 ranked Trout Mask Replica as the 58th Greatest Album of all time, out of 500. How do I know that? The same way I seem to know everything anyone knows these days: I read it on Wikipedia.)

A typical record album cover from the 1960s.

A typical record album cover from the 1960s. Get busy.


On that sobering afternoon a few months ago it took me almost two hours to persuade a couple of my nieces to accept my musical gifts. My nieces are the nicest, sweetest, most beautiful relatives I have, and it wasn’t until I was southbound on I-75 and enwombed by tractor trailers and RV’s and Ford Expeditions that I realized just how nice they were. I was their uncle. Thus it was proper and respectful to let me complete whatever incomprehensible act of contrition/sacrifice I seemed to be doing. They had listened to me for almost two hours. And they had kindly accepted about 12 CDs between them.

But nothing of the music meant anything to them. The bands, the songs, the trends, the place in musical history — the staggering importance these records had for Humanity and for Mankind’s struggle against “The Man” — all meant zero. Nada. It wasn’t that they were disinterested in the capsule histories I provided. It was just that, well, they had never heard of these people.

They had been busy living their own lives.

“Who are Simon and Garfunkel?” was a typical question.

Never mind who are/were Deep Purple, the Byrds, Steve Miller, Caravan, the Small Faces (or the Faces), Traffic, the Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, Quicksilver Messenger Service [Ed: WTF?], the Moody Blues, Savoy Brown, Linda Ronstadt, the Band, the James Gang, Joni Mitchell, the Strawbs, Family, Judy Collins, Todd Rundgren, Dave Mason. Never mind either Gentle Giant [Ed: that’s more like it], Black Sabbath, Ten Years After, Three Dog Night, Stephen Stills, Cat Stevens, Badfinger, The Rascals (we won’t even mention the Young Rascals), the Electric Prunes, Spanky and Our Gang, Country Joe and the Fish, the Mothers of Invention, Moby Grape, the Seekers, Procol Harum, King Crimson, the Yardbirds, Renaissance, Joan Baez, the Lovin’ Spoonful, John Mayall, and Blood, Sweat and Tears?

“So this Jefferson Airplane, you’re saying they come before Jefferson Starship?”

My sister, who is about my age, and has actually seen the Doobie Brothers live, back when they were famous, took a couple of Beatles CDs because she had a friend who likes the Beatles.

Even Charles was bored by the all the obscure groups and the old CDs spilled out over my sister’s living room floor. He may have been more concerned about his own shelf space. He seemed not to have heard any of this stuff either. But how had he known about Captain Beefheart? Had I once again utterly deceived myself? Charles had seemed to know who the Monkees were; however, I noticed that he left the 4 CD box set behind.

Later I figured it out, of course. Google. And news flashes from the internet.

Once I got over my embarrassment — another spasm of enthusiasm for a lost cause on my part, just like my trying to persuade people to immediately drop whatever they are doing, raising kids, getting an education, having open-heart surgery, and go to the Acrocorinth in Greece — once I got over my schoolboy blushes, I realized that all this is as it should be.

And would I have responded very differently if in 1969 a senile grandparent had insisted I inherit his collection of 78 rpm records and told me a two hour story about Harry Bidgood And His Broadcasters and their hit 1927 song, “Me and Jane in a Plane”?

(I’m not making this up. It’s on YouTube, along with the rest of my entire existence.)

The day I tried to unload a hundred pounds of old CDs was also the day of my mother’s memorial service. My nieces, my sisters, my uncle and aunt and my cousin and I had driven up into the Blue Ridge Mountains for a brief but beautiful ceremony, a reading, and the scattering of Mom’s ashes. My uncle invited us all to keep alive in memory our sister, mother, grandmother, aunt. She shall live as long as we live.

But my uncle is wrong. We can’t keep the past alive even for ourselves, and we can never transmit its colors and sounds and vibrancy to those who come after us. As someone says somewhere, I forget where exactly, the past is a foreign country.

All of it fades. Our photographs, diaries, letters, record collections, slide collections, though they may sometimes strike the curiosity of a beautiful niece for a few minutes, are in the end no more substantial to them than the Depression or the Model T or the War in the Pacific, or any of the other hundred million experiences and emotions my mother had, are to me. They can’t be.

Before I continue — before I contradict everything I think I’m trying to say here myself by bringing in Adam — let me offer an example of incommunicable experience. It’s one of my experiences, and of course any attempt to “share” it will fail miserably. And probably laughably.

In the autumn of 1967 I was a boarding student in the American Community School of Beirut, Lebanon. I was there because the Company schools at the time only went up to the 9th grade and my parents didn’t really see the necessity of sending me all the way to the States for a high school diploma. So they sent me just a thousand miles away, to Lebanon. In those days Beirut was a sophisticated, modern, western, decadent, French- and Arabic- and English-speaking city with beautiful beaches, casinos, coffee shops, woods of pine trees, Roman ruins, bookstores, banks, luxury hotels, a university of world fame, ski resorts up in the mountains, and a democratic (well, maybe) government. All the taxi cabs were old Mercedes. (All of this fell apart in 1975 with the Civil War, which lasted until 1990 or 2003 or is still going on, depending on who you’re talking to.) My little school was only a few yards from the Corniche, in West Beirut; from my window I could see the lights of ships on the Mediterranean at night.

My school was somewhere a little to the right and up of the swimming pool in the bottom right corner. The swimming pool seems new. In fact, other than the red-tile roofs of the American University of Beirut and the mountains it all seems new.

My school was somewhere a little to the right and up from the swimming pool in the bottom right corner. The swimming pool seems new. In fact, other than the red-tile roofs of the American University of Beirut and the mountains it all seems new.

Because I was a teenager at the time it’s only those last details — ships’ lights at on the horizon at night and the wind blowing in from the Mediterranean — that held any importance for me. The school allowed us to go Uptown (Hamra Street, West Beirut) only during certain carefully prescribed hours, and never alone, preferably in a group of five or six. After school ended during the week we were generally free for a couple of hours, then it was dinner for the boarding students, followed by an hour and a half or so of study hall in our rooms.

I lived in what was called the Boys’ B.D. Everything that interested me about Beirut in 1967 lived in the next building, which was called the Girls’ B.D.

After study hall we were allowed to go into the hallways and horse around.

The weekends as you can imagine were more difficult for the authorities to supervise. Sometimes there were dances in the gym, or little gatherings over in what I think was called the Elementary School. All I really remember was that I was allowed to wander up and down in the side street running outside the dorms, buy sandwiches and Cokes, and in general be a harmless nonentity. There was no air-conditioning and the nights with their fragrances and mysterious voices and shadows were often very beautiful.

None of which I understood then. Things like beautiful nights only become beautiful years later.

Now here’s the incommunicable part of the story.

A picture stolen from the web and intended to suggest the incommunicable-ness of the Beirut Corniche. I would stand at this spot as often as I could during the three years I was a student in Beirut. It was a walk of about two minutes from the dormitory.

A picture stolen from the web and intended to suggest the incommunicable-ness of the Beirut Corniche. I would stand at this spot as often as I could during the three years I was a student in Beirut. It was a walk of about two minutes from the dormitory.

Picture a four story dormitory, all the windows open to catch the breeze, a Mediterranean autumn night, and dozens of impressionable children in the street below. Some very impressionable. It’s dark, the shrubs guarding the sacred landscape of the Girls’ B.D. are menacingly deep, and your hearing is preternaturally keen, as if you were in danger. And you ARE in danger! You just turned sixteen. You have discovered that you are the world’s loneliest human being and that your suffering and loneliness are beyond the expressive capacity of language.

Remember: all the dormitory windows are open?

Remember, too, how sounds are weirdly enhanced at night, especially to the ears of lovesick teenagers?

Some of the boarding students spent all their spare cash on drugs. (Once a kid proudly showed me his hashish collection: it was hidden under his bed and packed in a ball about the size of a soccer ball.) Other kids spent it on clothes, or scuba gear. And then there were those of us who spent our money on high-fidelity stereo systems: Akai reel-to-reel tape players, Pioneer or Sansui receivers, Yamaha or Bose speakers, Dual turntables with Shure cartridges. The goal was volume. Volume and bass.

So there I was, impressionable, fifteen years and thirteen months old, in the middle of the street at 9:30 at night, when from one of the dorm windows the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” suddenly flooded out of someone’s stereo set. It was so loud it seemed to drown all other sounds, in Beirut, in the entire Levant. It was so loud yet so clear, and yet so intimate — it was as if I were listening on headphones the size of city blocks. “Nights in White Satin” is a seven minute or so symphonic rock/orchestra love song of crushing bombast, or brilliant romanticism (it depends on who you’re talking to at the moment): and fittingly enough, written and sung by a 19 year old kid. It sounds corny, I know, this being-hit-over-the-head-by-a-pop-song routine, and it is corny. But it was also unforgettable. Of course I knew the song. I even owned the album Days of Future Passed and “Nights in White Satin” wasn’t even the best song on the album. (The best song on the album was “Tuesday Afternoon.”) I had listened to both songs dozens, maybe hundreds of times, as well as dutifully studied the cover and liner notes. But I had only heard the song in the context of my room, or on headphones while my roommate studied.

I had never heard it played on a continental scale.

Whatever the cause — the autumn night, the caffeine in my system, the particular balance of my emotional gyroscope that hour — I was deeply and profoundly moved. It was just beautiful. It might not have meant anything to anyone else outside the dorm that night; to everyone else it was just a loud song, or some guy showing off his stereophonic gear and/or expressing his feelings by playing a record, which I understand teenagers even today continue to do. But I was hearing that particular song at that particular time and in that particular space. Even today, half a century afterward, the moment has the power to provoke a Blog entry such as this. I also understood, but not in any rational way, or in any way at all, that although my teachers had told me The Great Gatsby was beautiful, or that a chair painted by van Gogh was beautiful, or that the great red sun settling into the Mediterranean I could see from my dorm window was beautiful, none of those things could hold a candle to that song at that hour on that night. In the years to come I would attempt to persuade myself that I was just being silly, that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was where beauty was; but I’m old enough now to know I was just fooling myself.

And that’s what I had to learn all over again that day when I tried to give away my CD collection to my nieces. It can’t be transmitted, whatever magic there is in music, or the power of the imagination, even when what is being imagined is essentially a futile exercise in nostalgia on the part of a man whose emotional temperature these days is 3 degrees Kelvin, and who is greatly annoyed by the drooling old guy who keeps scowling at him in his mirror.

Nonetheless, I guess I’ll try anyway.

In a way, it makes me feel like I have something in common with Neil Young. That is if there is any truth to the story that Neil used to row visitors at his ranch out to the middle of the stream that ran through his property. Neil had set up two barns, one on each side of the stream, as a gigantic stereo system, and he would shout out instructions to his sound engineers. “More right side barn!” “Turn down the left channel!”

Anyway, here is what happened to me during the 34 months between January 1967 and October of 1969.

In January of 1967 the Doors released their first album.

In February came Surrealistic Pillow and the Byrds’ Younger than Yesterday.

In March came first albums by the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. In April Country Joe and the Fish released Electric Music.

In May of 1967 came the Mothers of Invention with Absolutely Free, and the first album from Jimi Hendrix.

June saw Sgt. Pepper, and for what it’s worth, Moby Grape’s first LP.

Between July and October of 1967 came Pink Floyd’s first album, Vanilla Fudge, the Kinks’ Something Else, Buffalo Springfield’s second album and Procol Harum’s first. Also in October the Doors released Strange Days (another record that sounds great at midnight in large open spaces).

In November came Cream’s Disraeli Gears; the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (see rave review above); the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour; Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s (an album deliberately made to alienate its adolescent listeners); and Love’s Forever Changes.

Then December of 1967. As they say, you had to be there to believe it. Jimi Hendrix, Axis; the Rolling Stones’ Satanic Majesties, The Who Sell Out, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (WTF, Bob?), Donovan’s double album, A Gift, the second double album released by a pop singer and still the most emblematic record of the Age of Innocence; and, just to top off the year, Traffic’s first album, Mr. Fantasy.

The first three months of 1968 saw first records by Spirit; Steppenwolf; Blood, Sweat, Sweat and Tears (“are those horns I’m hearing?”); Fleetwood Mac; Joni Mitchell; and the soundtrack to The Graduate.

It’s April and you have to buy Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends; the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle (the misspelling is from a record executive and the band liked it so much they kept it); and Sly and the Family Stone.

In May there was Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison (required listening and yes I bought the album). And The Small Faces released Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.

In June came Iron Butterfly. June appears to have been a slow month.

In July the first album by Creedence Clearwater Revival; Buffalo Springfield’s last album; Cream’s Wheels of Fire; Deep Purple’s first album; and, so different from everything else in the summer of 1968 that it sounded like it was from Mars (or Canada), the Band’s Music for Big Pink.

It was getting harder to define one’s musical tastes.

In August there was Hey Jude. Jeff Beck’s Truth. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo (try listening to this record knowing that only two years before the Byrds were playing “Eight Miles High”).

Also in August: Janis Joplin and Cheap Thrills (see illustration above.)

To speed things up a little:

The rest of 1968 saw: The Steve Miller Band, Jethro Tull, Caravan, Traffic’s second album, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, James Taylor, the White Album, the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, Beggar’s Banquet by the Stones, records by Neil Young and the Soft Machine, and (ten ahead of its time) Dillard and Clark’s Fantastic Expedition.

In January 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival released Bayou Country, and Led Zeppelin’s first album came out. It might be helpful, as an experiment in how things were developing, to listen to these two records back to back.

February: Ten Years After.

March: Genesis, Savoy Brown, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Spooky Two.

April: Chicago’s first album and Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (is this really Bob Dylan?).

May: Neil Young and Crazy Horse; Poco’s first album; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Who and Tommy, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds.

June: Elton John’s first; Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog; and yes, unknown and ignored even by those who knew, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.

July: Yes, the Doors’ Soft Parade. Another album by Pink Floyd.

August: Blind Faith, Santana.

September: Abbey Road.

October: King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Led Zeppelin II, Zappa’s Hot Rats.

And that’s what happened to me (and a few million others) between January 1967 and October 1969.

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