Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Clarence, my longtime 6-stringed companion, has aided and abetted some of my strangest inexplicable moments. I’m not sure if holding his smooth wooden body, fingering his strings and feeling his vibrations might well, hmm … open something in me? Let me tune in, literally, to another soul nearby? Your guess is as good as mine. But that’s essentially what happens.
I can think of musically tuned-in times without my guitar. My sister Pauline and I still talk about this: When our oldest niece Carrie was an infant, we kneeled around her portable crib on our mother’s living-room floor. Without a single word or signal, simultaneously we broke into the song, “Poor Jud Is Daid.” The Rodgers & Hammerstein song from Oklahoma! from our childhood home packed with their soundtracks. (Our parents met in church choir, in the late ‘50s.)
To this day, neither of us can explain how or why we both just … released that song at the same instant. (No thinking involved.) Maybe “Poor Jud” always sounded sacred, of all the Rogers & Hammerstein that floated around our childhood? Maybe baby Carrie Anne was just “lookin’ oh so peaceful and serene,” which, to be clear, she still looks most of the time today, in her 20s. But how my sister and I launched that song at the same moment? One of many mysterious connections, growing up within the same litter. Even if that litter took our mother 13 years to finish popping into cribs.
My dear friends Amy and Bonnie, who are identical twins, have told me: Once they were walking on a random sidewalk somewhere and, apropos of nothing, simultaneously started singing, “In some secluded rendez-vous.” It’s a nutty old Spike Jones song from the end of World War II. Amy tells me they knew it from an episode of "The Odd Couple," with Felix Unger leading his 'Sophisticados' in the song. (A & B – named, initially, with initials, by the hospital in which they were born, will win any trivia contest involving film history and I could not love them more for that, and many other reasons.) To this day, they cannot explain why they both burst into that song at the same moment, out of nowhere.
No reason other than the exquisite connection, maybe, of a single split egg, grown into two women? Somehow, I’ve found it easier to understand their experience, as identical twins.
Then again. Would it be so strange to imagine that discrete eggs from the same woman, who turned into persons vibrating with energy and feeling and molecules and love, could generate such an inexplicable coincidence, around a fresh niece in her portable crib?
Likewise, would it really be so strange that eggs from discrete women – strangers -- grown into people who vibrate with energy and molecules, could connect, communicate, feel a song? I mean, we’re made of the same left-handed-amino-acid life in moon-pulled tidal pools, right? Sharing ancient DNA-ladders, once burst out of the same stuff as any other star or planet or seed or life-form’s elements, across a universe?
So strange to include other animals, also feeling inexplicable connections, even across great distances? The way you might know an animal companion ‘feels’ you somewhere, or en-route home? (Please read some Rupert Sheldrake, whose experiments deserve repetition.)
Or strange to including formerly living things, souls or spirits of people (or animals) whose mortal coils have returned to earth and dust and air? I am none-the-wiser about how souls work and send, but, regularly, how to put it? I feel communication from my sister-in-law-Page, freed from her physical suffering in late 2013, but no less communicable, somehow, with me or any of those whom she loved so fiercely. It’s not just a sense, or memory, of her. More like suggestions, from her lessons-learned, active questions from her, a nod or pointed finger toward one possibility rather than another, that I can’t shake. Don’t want to shake. Have come to trust. And trust is hard-earned. So all this is super-mysterious.
I only kind-of digress. Maybe these felt vibrations are also a kind of music, but at frequencies we can’t hear as such, so much. I can’t explain why I spend time wondering about all this! Yet it seems important. All I can really say? I got rhythm, I got music, I got plenty of reasons to wonder about all this.
Standing deep below a street in Paris, against the wall of an echoing, tiled tunnel of Métro Odéon. Holding my trusty companion, Clarence, his body wrapped to mine by a shoulder strap.
His open, golden-furred case (1 of 4 latches broken off long ago, maybe en-route to a gig involving the Masons, to entertain their ladies’ in Charlottesville?) clinking with the sound of flying French-franc coins. Unofficially, I’d learned, each performer had about an hour, in the tunnels of Métro Odéon. Even one 10-franc piece would cover my meals that day. To each coin-tosser of whatever size, I would try to nod thanks, mid-song, while I also thought about the next song or few.
One day while singing, I’d planned next to do 3 goddess-songs in a row (Billie Holiday’s “My Man,” Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” then Aretha Franklin’s “Til You Come Back to Me”). Not just because they were all in my Pantheon of Music but because for all 3, I could keep my capo on the 2nd fret. (A story for another post, why I never learned, seriously, to play the guitar -- stopped short prematurely, thanks to a handsy (and later convicted-and-imprisoned) (but at the time well-respected) Gaithersburg music teacher -- but I figured out how to accompany myself while singing, and Clarence’s ego was always more evolved than my own.)
As I was about to start the 3rd song, the Aretha, a clear message rose from my gut sense: “Nope. ‘Light My Fire.’ Pop off that capo. Lightmyfire, lightmyfire, lightmyfire.”
What? Why? I asked my gut-voice. Like a pitcher shaking off a catcher’s hand-signal, I actually shook my head, down in the tunnel. Who-tf is pitching here, fkn whippersnapper gut-sense?
Yet that feeling, that direction, was so strong, my left hand did pop off the capo and jam it into my vest pocket. Capo-less Am7 it would be, no time to wallow in the mire. (I’d worked out a kind of hybrid Doors/Jose Feliciano version, if they had all been Ella Fitzgerald.) And before I finished the scat fade-out in the subway tunnel, a lanky, blond man had approached and stopped still.
The sea of bodies maneuvered around him. He just stood and stared at me as I finished with a quick flourish. Oddly, I didn’t feel uncomfortable by his staring like that, as I usually might. (As a performer who doesn’t want to be looked at!) The man then sidled along the tiled wall toward me, like a spy in a thriller movie.
Once near me, he said, “I cannot believe you’re singing that song!” In our stare-down, he blinked first.
“I was just walking down the street (he pointed upwards to the sidewalk outside) thinking about that very song. There were sirens and it was noisy and all I could think was, Damn I want to hear Light My Fire. I don’t know why. And I come down here, and you’re singing it!”
I think I started nodding. “I wasn’t going to play it! I was about to sing something else. Aretha. It just.” What? “Wanted to be sung.”
Nothing we could do but wonder toward each other. He wondered if maybe we could get a coffee or something. I’d been singing for almost an hour. “Sure.”
I nestled Clarence, his capo and picks into his furry case, quickly pocketed all the change. With this tall guy, we climbed the two stories back up to the street. (For some reason this man’s name did not stick. Let’s call him, approximately, Jan – “Yahn.” Pretty close.) I do remember he was only in Paris for a few days, on his way to Stockholm for the Nobel award ceremony. Something he’d always wanted to do, and someone had gotten him a ticket. (Was he Canadian, of Swedish extraction? Something like that.)
Jan came with me to a bank – my pregnant-sea-creature-vest pockets full of Clarence’s amazing case-lucre – then we found some tea. We talked about the song a bit, how Jim Morrison (buried in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise across town) and the whole band had gotten credit, but really the song came from guitarist Robby Krieger. We talked about Nobel prizes, and about meeting up again, but we never did. Sometimes knowing someone for a single hour is plenty.
It wasn’t so easy to meet up again, then. (No one had a mobile phone for texting, no one had an email account, or even, necessarily, a pen and paper on their person. I know this may be hard to imagine, especially to younger travelers. The hive-mind of humans was about to initiate such luxuries of communication, but. Not yet, in the mid-‘80s.) The fact of that unexpected song and a pot of tea? Enough. (Hope you’re well these days, Jan-or-something-like-it.)
As I headed back to my UNESCO hostel with Clarence, I remembered going to Père Lachaise a couple of years earlier. As soon as we’d walked through the gate, a guard shouted, “Jim?” Everywhere we walked, someone asked, “Jim?” or some graffito pointed toward “Jim.” I had hoped to find the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde. To see so many gravestones marred by a spray-painted ‘Jim’ felt demoralizing to me. A few weeks later, finally climbing the Tour Eiffel before leaving town, I spotted on the metal girders a painted ‘Jim’ with an arrow. It was correctly pointing toward that cemetery, well away from there. Had to laugh at that.
Even if Morrison’s grave had put the song into Jan’s mind, several stories above me on the Left Bank, how would I have felt that, underground? I mean, I popped off my capo away from Aretha, and made a different noise that some stranger had wanted to hear.
This, I think, is how parents tell stories. Key stories. More than once, making sure they’ve told them, boring their children yet again. Not the “Light My Fire” story in some weird subway, years ago! Meaningful moments within a life of a million-million moments. Without children under my roof, I guess I’ve saved these stories for my nieces and nephews, and the likes of you, Gentle Reader, tonight on this American Independence Day.
But wait, there’s more!
In late 1986, after my band broke up, I sang with Clarence every night for a month in the Radisson in Alexandria, Virginia. A swanky seafood restaurant, ‘featuring live acoustic music.’ Backpedaling a bit: My source of singing income, which had become my sole income for a while, had imploded. (Watch a movie called “The Commitments” for insight.)
Every day I would run or ride my bike along the northern-Virginia trails. Sometimes I’d stumble upon an impromptu game of volleyball, in a permanent sandpit in the woods. Only guys playing. I remembered liking volleyball.
One time I slowed down, and the players shouted, “Hey, you in? We need one more.”
I was in. And a few minutes in, one of the volleyball players asked me, “Aren’t you a singer?” He said he had heard me on his night off at a place in McLean. Yep, that was me, there. As it turned out, he needed someone to fill in for him for a month, at his regular gig at the Radisson. Two days later, I handed him a handmade, boom-box-on-the-ironing-board demo-tape, on cassette. They hired me for his month away.
One night during that month, my gaze stretched toward the back corner, too dark to make out any diners. For no apparent reason.
Completely contrary to the song I’d planned next, I decided to sing an old Tom Waits song, “Ol’ 55.” (The Eagles covered it, too.) Song about an old car. I hadn’t sung that in years. Still, I gave it a go, unsure why.
After that, while I looked over my song-list again, a guy walked up from the back corner. He was shaking his head. “I was just thinking about that song, like 5 minutes ago! I was sitting back there listening to you sing and I thought ‘There are some songs, like ‘Ol’ 55,’ that should never stop being played.’ But I thought, ‘She’ll never play that.’”
“And then you fucking played it!”
Then he said, “Sorry.” (For the fucking, I guessed.) (I shrugged, not at all horrified.) He stuffed a $10 bill in my brandy glass, still shaking his head.
I wasn’t going to play it! my good man from the way-back. I wasn’t sure I could even remember the words, but the song just -- wanted to be played. I said none of that out loud, since my jaw was locked open.
Before I could even thank him for the tip, the man was out the door. The mystery, like most, remained. Briefly I considered playing “Light My Fire” next, but decided to take a break. The bartenders were so nice and remembered that I just wanted club-soda, no ice.
One night soon after, as people cracked their sea-creature shells and downed their old-fashioneds, I sang songs I loved; it was crowded and no one was paying much attention. My favorite zone!
Had to sing “Crazy,” by way of Patsy Cline, written by Willie Nelson, known to me first by Linda Ronstadt. Everyone, including me, sang the fuck out of that song, because it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. (Sorry, for the fuck. But not sorry because true.) I could feel that song come through me and through everyone else who’d ever felt that song, or would ever feel it in the future.
Anyway. After “Crazy” inside this swanky place, a middle-aged man with kind brown eyes approached me and said, “Wow, thank you. Do you know ‘Sweet Dreams’ too?”
I appreciated his question. I was familiar with the song. “Not enough to sing it. I’m sorry.” He leaned his forearm on the (unused) piano that held my glass for tips. I barely noticed he slipped in a $20.
The man looked pained. “So here’s the thing.” He cleared his throat. I held my breath.
“A girl I knew, a long time ago. When we were teenagers,” he added. “She lives here in DC. And, I’m here on business. And.” He gathered together his everything. “Our song was ‘Sweet Dreams.’ And if you, if you could possibly play that, tomorrow night, when she’s here, for dinner, with me, I mean.” He couldn’t finish.
Oh shit. I really didn’t know all the words and chords for ‘Sweet Dreams.’ I’d lost my Some Kind of Best of Patsy Cline cassette-tape to a warm car, parked in the shade, when my planet had moved the shade.
In those days, there was no internet, with readily searchable chords and lyrics; you had to figure out songs by yourself, unless you happened to have that specific songbook or sheet-music, which was unlikely, for any b-side request.
He added, “There’s another $20 in it for you tomorrow night, if you can.”
Sir, I would gladly do it for free, for such a cause. Yet how on this green earth could I pull off that specific song the very next night, for his Teen Angel? Requests like that didn’t magically solve themselves.
Trying to fall asleep that night, I thought about Patsy, whose airplane had slammed into a mountain when she was still a young singer. A biopic movie had come out the year before, starring Jessica Lange as Patsy; she lip-synced the songs. I had seen it in the theater, but had no way to go back and capture the lyrics, figure out the chords. The next morning, I woke up in the room I rented from a scattered phys-ed teacher in North Arlington, VA. Gratefully, he was usually gone, or almost gone, by the time I woke after my late-shift gigs. Often there would be a strange new young woman in the kitchen when I went to make coffee (even if he had already left). But that morning, I had the house to myself.
Contrary to my usual habit, I sat down in the faded recliner in the living room to drink my coffee and eat a banana. (I didn’t care much for TV, especially during the day; 98% of the time I preferred the radio in my room, or my record-player.) For some reason, I grabbed the clicker and turned on the TV. As it turned out, my housemate had left it on HBO.
And guess what movie was just starting, sports fans?
Yep. “Sweet Dreams,” starring Jessica Lange and Ed Harris. I ran to get my tape-recorder (will explain that another day) and captured the song. Then, figured out the chords. Practiced the lyrics in my head when I went running. (The lyrics weren’t very long or complex.) That evening, waited for the man to return with Her at the restaurant.
She was lovely. He was happy. I could easily see the teenagers they had once been. At his signal from a few tables away, I sang their song. The whole time I thought, wow, what teenagers don’t know, right? Puppy love, abiding love, who knew?
He came up afterward and put a $20 (or two?) in my jar. They fled, obviously before dessert. Maybe even before the entrée.
I remember sitting there for a minute, thoughtful, neither singing nor taking a break. Already I wondered how their lives might change – or not – because of one old song on one night by a young woman who knew she really had to find a day-job, any office-job. One old song I had had the privilege to set free that night.
How had setting free “Ol’ ‘55” happened, or “Light My Fire” back in Paris? How could I guess that in a matter of years, “Poor Jud is Daid” would happen?
The manager walked up. I thought she would be unhappy, per my temporary catatonia.
“Mary,” she said. “We’re all sad this is your last week.” Right. I wished I could play there at the Radisson forever, but the guy I’d met in the volleyball pit was coming back, as planned. She handed me a coffee cup with the restaurant’s logo, and a napkin signed by the wait-staff and bartenders. “I know it’s not much, but I’ll be off on your last night. We’ve loved having you here.”
As I closed up Clarence’s case in the wee hours, I put the napkin inside, where it sits today, almost 35 years later.
Those inexplicable moments – voices, messages, notions, sudden ‘truths’– are just as unpredictable as ever. Those gut-voice moments take their sweet time to visit, but arrive no less clearly.
Even if those moments don’t involve music directly, I wonder if they’re all part of some genuine symphony of mystery.
Some harmony of tones, not so much along a linear EGBDF staff like sheet-music, but more surrounding us, all the time, a web of souls, a web of connection. Okay, one of love.
I’ll have to suggest that to my sister Pauline, when we talk about it next. We were “just” looking at our first niece and feeling a very specific moment of eternal love. And who could ask for anything more?
Thanks so much for reading,
1. “Pore Jud is Daid”
2. “Cocktails for Two” (‘in some secluded rendez-vous)