Expecting to Cry
When old songs return to form
This is what happens when I follow up on friends’ recommendations. Several friends recently advised me to watch the Netflix original documentary, Echo in the Canyon. These friends know I love the history of American popular music; they know how obsessed I was with Ken Burns’ Country Music.
They know that they and I formerly attended rock concerts on a weekly basis, back when we could buy ounces of pot for $15.
Imagine there’s no drug war. I wonder if you can.
These friends know especially that I love the folk-rock/country-rock hippieish beginnings of the mid-late 1960’s: bands like The Byrds, CSN&Y, The Mamas and the Papas.
The Laurel Canyon Sound.
And, of course, The Buffalo Springfield.
Echo in the Canyon, narrated/hosted by Jakob Dylan, takes us deep into the canyon, showing us the intermeshing of the above-mentioned artists with other California music denizens like The Beach Boys, and with visiting British icons like Eric Clapton and The Beatles. Dylan and some other contemporary artists like Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, and Beck played many of these old 60’s tunes in a live show and in practice so that we could hear the timelessness of songs like “Dedicated to the One I Love” or “The Bells of Rhymney.”
As I watched this 82 minute chronicle, I found myself getting emotional. In part, it was the scenes of the canyon itself: “the winding paths through tables and glass,” up the hills and around, where houses perch in impossible angles, and general stores and groceries remind me of places like Massey’s, back where I’m from in the McCalla section of Bessemer.
As the old footage of those Mamas and Papas wound, I texted one of my friends:
“I’m watching Echo in the Canyon. And crying.”
“You need a slap across the mouth.”
“It’s great, huh!”
I laughed through whatever else was happening in me, and then I realized what this “whatever else” was.
Not too long ago, I was counseling a student who just passed the one-year anniversary of his father’s death.
“Don’t expect grief to go away of its own accord,” I said. “It will take its own time, and please make sure that you’re talking to someone regularly. You have to attend to your grief.”
I’m glad I can offer this student and myself such counsel, such wisdom. But using the words is an echo canyon away from heeding them, from attending to the wave that comes when something bizarre, or very ordinary, strikes you as you watch a documentary about 60’s music.
Sure, as I listened to Michelle Phillips sing the intro to “Dedicated,” I flashed on an old love and how we fell for each other when this song played once in our midst.
And sure, as Roger McGuinn explained the subtleties of the 12-string dream electric guitar, I remembered seeing him solo at the Birmingham (Boutwell) Municipal Auditorium somewhere in the 1970’s, opening, I believe, for Jackson Browne, who was also in Echo Canyon. I thought as I listened to McGuinn speak of these days, “OMG, I saw him live once upon a life!”
You’d think I was a star-struck 63-year old man or something.
Imagine next year, when…
What I’m building to here, what I’m trying to say, and why I’m taking this long to say it is that I have to creep up on the moment, because I know what’s going to happen.
Imagine me in my bedroom at home, back in 1970–1, when I first discovered that my rock and roll idol, Neil Young, had once played in another band — that group lines above this one: The Buffalo Springfield.
With my grass-cutting money, I spend the $3.69 at K-Mart to buy Retrospective, the single disc “best of” array of Springfield tunes. I won’t dissect all of these here, though who can’t get behind a song titled, “And Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing?”
Once, in an American Literature class, I played my students “Broken Arrow.’ They said it was “haunting,” meaning that it kind of scared them. Some things, I know, are untranslatable.
That song was produced by Jack Nitzsche who overlaid orchestral maneuverings onto the Neil Young ballad.
And then he did the same for the Neil Young-written song that more or less begins and ends Echo in the Canyon:
“Expecting to Fly.”
I would sit in my room, afternoon, evening, past midnight, listening to this album and particularly this song. I had never heard anything like it, and emotionally, the only thing close was The Beatles, “Day in the Life.” It wasn’t that I completely understood Young’s lyrics. It’s that I felt something I couldn’t explain:
“There you stood on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly.
Well I laughed and wondered whether, I could wave goodbye,
Knowing that you’d gone…”
I was a fifteen-year old boy living in Bessemer, Alabama, listening to a sound far beyond my reckoning and place. A time when “waving goodbye” happened rarely, infrequently, and hardly ever for good, except in the case of my Nanny, who died that summer, though I’d been feeling that I’d already said goodbye months before I actually did. Or didn’t, since my mother wouldn’t let me see her in those last weeks.
So here it is, can’t avoid it any longer, and I will figure out how to manage the grief, I swear.
In the snippets of “Expecting to Fly” that Echo in the Canyon echoed for me the other night, it hit me that, as with other songs I might have forgotten, this was the first time I’d heard it since my own mother died. I know, it’s crazy. Who thinks like this?
There are so many markers out there in grief-land: the before and after experience of eating at an old haunt again; shopping at a store we used to experience together; revisiting a vacation spot or the city of southern dreams (New Orleans) for the first time — since.
Some of these, we can anticipate (I know what to expect before my wife and I take our upcoming New Orleans trip ,when we plan to eat at Commander’s Palace. The last Christmas present my mother gave me was a colored pen sketch of that particular eating mecca).
But when a song I’ve worshipped comes on for the first time after the parent I’ve spent my entire life with has gone, where does that hit? Where does it leave me?
Alone, standing somewhere fragile, some place above the ground.
On something like a feather.
I thought I’d already said goodbye, with feeling.
Now I realize saying goodbye, like grief, lasts longer than you or I ever expected it would.