Exhibit A: Richard Harris – “MacArthur Park”
Mom was working at St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time. As everyone in the medical profession knows, hospital shifts involve some jacked-up hours, and I vaguely recall that Mom had to report at 6am. (This may be a lie; all I know is that it was dark when we left the house, barely awake and unimpressed that we had to get up in the first place.) We had a Volkswagen Beetle at the time, as did 97% of the planet. I would lumber towards that essentially-useless “storage area” behind the backseat, where I was still small enough to hunker down in defiance, expressing my societal outrage via personal-confinement.
Through some combination of our house being somewhat near the hospital, the length of the song, and the apparently rigid playlist of the radio station Mom then relished, Richard’s cryptic words were the only things I heard from the ignition of the car to my quick abandonment at the daycare/preschool/minimum-security correctional facility next to the hospital. Someone left the cake out in the rain at the same time that I was being left out to dry in the American educational system. No wonder I have food issues to this day.
Exhibit B: Don McLean – “American Pie”
Somewhere in the archives, there is the tale of my father having an obsession with both driving recklessly on motorcycles and tormenting me by insisting that I join him in these ventures. (Having no voting rights in the matter, I also had no choice.) Short version of this tragic and woeful saga: The climax occurred at one of those dirt-bike parks that were all the rage, with Daddy ignoring my anguished protests of violation and malfeasance as he attempted to run up a hill with a gradient of roughly 87 degrees.
We nearly died. And during this extremely spiritual moment, at least at those points when I wasn’t screaming, I could hear this song braying out of a nearby yokel’s pickup truck. (No idea if pink carnations were in said truck, as I didn’t quite have the time to do a proper review of the inventory, busy as I was with envisioning what type of choreography would be performed at my funeral. Because there WILL BE choreography, write that down.) You know your day is not going to go well when a complete stranger says things like “mister, maybe you oughta let the boy hop down before you try that” and your padre flips off said stranger.
Exhibit C: America – “A Horse with No Name”
In 1972, Evel Knievel Daddy uprooted the family and moved us from the relatively sophisticated metropolis of Tulsa and out to the sordid backwaters of nearby Broken Arrow. (The rest of us just assumed that one of us was being punished for some vague transgression; that’s just how the family dynamic worked until The Big Divorce came along and completely reworked the script, changed the cast, and forever altered the fabric of family reunions.) This meant that I was plucked out of one school system, after having only served time in the first grade and clearly not getting my sea legs, and thrown into another. Complicating matters, this change involved going from a questionably-performing but somewhat stable school system into one that was on the verge of exploding into the fastest growing system in the state.
The school board had no idea what to do. Neither did I, lost in a wave of anonymity where names became numbers and educating became processing. (If you think a child doesn’t notice these things, you may not be giving that child enough credit, especially if he has already written a treatise entitled “Reflections on the Absurdities of My Single-Digit Years”, complete with annotations and pie charts.) On the flip side, an inventive child can get away with an amazing number of indiscretions when administrators are overwhelmed with just making sure there is enough government-subsidized food in the lunchroom.
Exhibit D: Elton John – “Levon”
My respect for EJ (and Bernie Taupin) is no secret on this blog. They have collaborated on a number of songs that are actually closer to my heart, but this one allows the listener to interpret things in a variety of ways, especially the one line that helped nudge me towards realizing it is okay to question what you’ve been told. And no, it’s not about Levon Helm. It’s about life. And that musical arrangement? Well, enough said…
Exhibit E: Far Corporation – “Stairway to Heaven”
Yep, I’m breaking protocol by not including the original version but rather a years-later remake. (Blame EJ and Bernie. They told me to branch out. I listened.) The Led Zeppelin version of this song was huge, obviously, and still is, despite the fact that nobody really knew what it was about, other than a slight indictment of the commercialization of religion. (Foreshadowing? Discuss amongst yourselves.) In this left-field take, a mix of homage and questionable decisions, we experience a then-modern revamping of something we had heard before presented in a different way.
And really, isn’t that what life should be? You take what you know and you make it your own, even if nobody else really gets it. As Levon or Elton or Jesus would say, “take a balloon and go sailing…”
Previously published, minor changes made. This particular Clam Bake is from the days when I used to incorporate music videos into the stories in this series. I got away from that (far way, in some cases), and then I eventually got away from doing Clam Bakes at all. (But I do re-share the dusty nuggets from time to time.) I’m thinking about reviving this project (along with other series that are on life-support, such as “Sunday in the Park with Brian” and “Writer to Writer” and “Sound-Bite Cinema”.) But I’m not sure if my heart is still in it.
And it makes me wonder…. (wonder)….
Elton John, flamboyantly: “Honey, the things that worked in the earlier days of your career are still golden. Bang on that drum as much as you can. Why do you think I’ve released 36 versions of a Greatest Hits album?”
Brian, sighingly: “But I don’t have a career. Well, not in writing. And lately my mind has been drifting and I don’t know where I’m going with my life goals, and I keep making poor choices about what to do with my time.”
Elton, confessionally: “Oh, I completely understand such a dilemma. I get lost in the dust in the wind as well. Remember that time I married a woman? As if that was real. Anyway, what you have to realize is that life is fluid and what seemed important at one time no longer might be. It’s fine if you never bake a clam again. But if you do, that’s fine, too. What matters is that you keep baking. Stop worrying what others might think and procrastinating because you don’t trust in yourself and justifying the worrying and procrastinating out of fear. Jump off the damn cliff and only do what you what to do, right here, right now.”
Brian, appreciatively: “Wow, Shiny Dancer. You just hit my reset button. Thank you so much. Could I possibly get your autograph so I can frame it and put it on the Inspiration Wall behind the desk where I scribble my stories every night, even if I’m not baking clams?”
Elton, clarifyingly: “No, dear. I don’t do the writing. Bernie does that.”
P.S. For those keeping score since I released the “song reference” post five days ago, I just added seven more ticks to our running tally since then. Pretty soon we’ll have 99 luftballons…