Sunday, February 09, 2014

Just Books

Several years ago, I started a book group. This is remarkable because for years I'd resisted the idea of book groups, scoffed at them even: I'm done with English class. Why would I want to discuss the books I read? I want to read them. And everyone says no one really talks about the books in those clubs, it's just a social hour; if I were to join a book group, I'd at least want to talk about the books! (Wait . . . )

Then I found myself both not getting through as many books as I used to and wanting a little more sociability in my life, so I got, as I like to say when something like this happens, a bee in my bonnet. (I need a cool-looking alarm clock, so I get obsessed with alarm-clock shopping. Or it turns 95 degrees and I suddenly need linen shirts—so within 24 hours I have three linen shirts in my closet. My most recent bee: flannel sheets! I ordered them last night.)

I got the idea of hand-picking the members of the book group: a half dozen or so friends who are gay men, and we'd read gay books. Within a few weeks, we were having a potluck planning meeting at my place.

This turned into a very short-lived group. Here's what I remember reading: Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger (about an American family with a gay son visiting Israel, which I think I liked well enough but don't recall very much about six years later); The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín (about political intrigue and closetedness in Argentina of the early '80s, which I enjoyed more); The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (about Edgar Allan Poe; I'd read a couple others of his, including the far superior Mr. Timothy, about Dickens's Tiny Tim as an adult); and the tediously sitcommy My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan (who happens to have been a sitcom writer, on Frasier).

By that time, my enthusiasm was already starting to dissipate. The discussion wasn't of a very high level or even long-lived, and frankly I realized that I wanted to pick all the books, which wasn't fair (I'd chosen only one of the above officially, but I think I exerted more influence, including veto power, than others, who were much more go-with-the-flow-and-pass-the-lasagna). I used the excuse of my parents' seriously failing health as a reason to put the group "on hold," and as excuses go, it was a pretty legitimate one. But I think I realized I'd been right about book groups all along, at least as they pertain to me. They're just not my thing.

I do kind of miss getting together with those guys, though. And I really miss reading as much as I used to, long before the group existed. I don't seem to have the time I once had, and I'm ashamed to admit I don't have the concentration. I lose patience with books quicker than before; now I often don't finish if I'm not into them. (I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing, but I rarely gave up on books when I was younger, so it's definitely a change in sense of responsibility.) I don't do Facebook or Twitter and spend very little of my downtime online, so I can't fully explain the shorter attention span. Perhaps it just pervades the culture and even I'm not immune.

A couple weeks ago, I had brunch with my friend C., an avid reader who I think has always considered me an avid reader (we know each other from an erstwhile gay writing group from the early to mid-'90s) because he's always asking me for book recommendations, and I do "present" like an avid reader, even now. Anyway, when I told him what I consider to be the paltry number of books I finished last year, he said, "Yeah, that's pretty bad." Which wasn't what I wanted to hear.

Part of the problem—and this has been going on since I came out of the closet almost 25 years ago (yay, finally this late bloomer can say a big number like "almost 25 years ago"!)—is that, with occasional exceptions, I have little patience with books that don't at least acknowledge that gay people exist. (That pretty much takes care of catching up with landmarks of world literature that I missed over the years, eh?) They just bore me, particularly of course contemporary literature. This stance of mine has holes all over it, I know—some stories simply have nothing to do with gay life through no deliberate avoidance on the author's part—but that doesn't change how I respond in the moment.

Would I have liked, for instance, Mentor: A Memoir (one of the books I forced myself to finish last year because my boss had lent it to me) better if the self-absorbed Frank Conroy suck-up who wrote it had mentioned a gay fellow writing student at Iowa or something? Probably not. (One thing that kept me reading was my memory of being a Frank Conroy admirer myself back in the day; I even met him and had him sign Stop-Time at a reading. Mentor made me thoroughly loathe him—which is actually fine, as I moved on from him years ago.)

Right about here, I was planning to list the books I finished and liked last year and the ones I didn't finish. (Of the latter group, I'll mention only the most surprising, the award-and-praise-laden Just Kids by Patti Smith, who made life in the East Village with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late '60s and early '70s sound positively Victorian; I became very skeptical very quickly.) But I've already gotten bored with that idea.

I did read a few really good books. Maybe that's all that matters.

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Un-Ordinary

A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail out of the blue from N., the daughter of longtime friends of my parents'. She had come across an essay I'd written about my family, prompting her to track me down. N. is about a dozen years older than me, and I never knew her well, largely because of the age difference, which made her an adult while I was still a kid, but I did know her parents. 

Her father and mine had met in college in the 1940s, then my father helped get her dad a job in Washington and they remained colleagues and friends for decades, even after their retirement from the government, when they both worked for a private firm for another 20 years or so. Our mothers were also close. I remember luncheons Mom would host for small groups of women friends, mostly wives of my father's colleagues, including N.'s mother. The menu might include vichyssoise or chicken in aspic or something prettily sliced like stuffed flank steak. Dessert could be plum kuchen or individual caramel custards.

I learned from Mom how to be hospitable, the value and satisfaction of welcoming people into your home and making delicious things for them to enjoy. (So why don't I do it more often?)

As N.'s parents, then mine, succumbed to the trials and diminishments of age, they fell out of touch. Her dad died in 1999, her mother in 2012, the same year my father passed away. All were in assisted living.

My mother, as I've written before, is still alive and in "memory care." I've also written here of a long-ago teaching colleague of hers who connected with me through the same essay of mine that N. read and who continues to visit Mom after more than two years. But N. is the first person to share with me in such detail the impression my mother made. Here's an excerpt from her note:

I was always fond of your parents, but I adored your mother. She was beautiful, stylish, talented, cultured, creative, articulate, and a wonderful cook. I still own and cherish some things she made for me—a knitted tea cozy, accompanied by a poem that she wrote, a patchwork hot pad, badly faded 40 years later, but still treasured, and a little collection of handwritten menus with recipes I still use.  Once she gave me a pretty glass jar filled with potpourri she had harvested from her garden.  Your mother was so un-ordinary, and I wish I had kept in closer touch with her. . . .  

Sometime in the mid-'60s, your parents gave a 12th Night party one winter afternoon after Christmas, and children were invited. Do you remember that? I can see exactly what your mother wore in my mind's eye—a gorgeous, long emerald-green hostess dress, which she told me your father had given her for Christmas. (I'm pretty sure I'm remembering that correctly.)  It was a wonderful party—lots of delicious homemade things, including candied grapefruit, which I'd never had before. 

Your mother never took the easy way out. If something was worth doing, it was worth doing to perfection. Once on my mother's birthday, your mom invited her over for lunch. My mother came home with lovely birthday gifts your mother had made—including homemade croissants in a basket with a beautiful embroidered cloth. By the way, I recall that your kitchen was all pink. Was it still pink when you sold the house?

I was sitting at my desk at work practically in tears at these lovely, unasked-for reminiscences—all, I might add, accurate. I do remember the 12th Night party. It was an open house—come anytime between, say, 3 and 6—and it became sort of legendary in the family. Mom would often say, "We should have another 12th Night party." But for all the other entertaining she did over the years—and she was essentially a shy person, a tough thing to reconcile with an inclination toward graciousness—we never had another bash like that.

I remember the green hostess dress, too—if you'd asked me what she wore to that party nearly 50 years ago, I couldn't have said, but N. helped me recall.

What I've realized reading and rereading N.'s e-mail (and we've continued the correspondence over the last two weeks) is that she has idealized Mom—and I love that she has. I think it's great.

I knew all of the same traits of my mother's that she describes, along with the more human side that everyone knows of a parent: the misunderstandings, the bathrobes, the TV dinners, the workaday. But N. saw her from a remove; maybe she even admired things that were different from her own mother (I didn't know her mom well enough to say). But what she has captured in those sentences is true—all of it. There are so few people in the world whom I have access to anymore, outside family, who cherished the beautiful things Mom brought to the world. The fact that N. went to the trouble to tell me was a real gift.

And no, the kitchen was no longer pink.

Before I was born.
Same front porch eight years later (me on the right).

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Wood and Clay, Bricks and Mortar, Iron and Steel, Silver and Gold

I see it was exactly eight years ago that I started this blog. At the time, my goal was simply to put sentences together. It remains so today, though it seems I manage to do it much less often. And it's no easier.

I sometimes feel like I'm entering an empty room every time I sit down to blog—or attempt to—whereas back then, a mere eight years ago in human years, I had a regular little community of readers and fellow bloggers almost right from the start: friends, friends of friends, people who stumbled across my Mantelpiece by accident. A conversation of sorts took place on any given evening. (In my memory it's always evening in bloggerland.) Commenting on one another's musings, linking back and forth, idly checking acquaintances' sites for new posts. It was cheerful and stimulating and revealing and fun.

Then friendships changed—fell away or morphed. Parents fell, got sick, were hospitalized, moved out of their longtime home. Work ramped up. Facebook came along. Like an attention-sucking extrovert at a perfectly good party, it grabbed the spotlight from humble blogging, at least in my circle. Now there are a lot of empty houses in my neighborhood. And noisy parties in that sprawling highrise down the street.

Yet here I am, still stepping into my quiet room, with occasional friendly visitors. The light is bright, the floors polished, the furnishings spare, but there's lots of space to move around.

I don't write about the minutiae of my day as much I did in what you might call the Mantelpiece's heyday. I guess I find myself going within more often than not, though it has never been a conscious choice.

The sentences are still there to be put together, those bridges made of—and between—words.

*Yes, I know this is Tower, not London, Bridge.
London Bridge* is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair Lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair Lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair Lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair Lady.

Set a man to watch all nigh,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair Lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair Lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair Lady.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autumn Sonata

Fall—true fall—has come relatively late. On Thursday, I wore gloves for the first time while biking to work; this morning I put on a fleece hat to walk the dog. I haven't given up hope that there'll be a few more chances to wear shorts.

I recently had new windows installed, finally allowing light to enter unobstructed by scratches and corroded screens—although a new building across the street means less light for the bedroom through those expensive new panes. Still, I'm happy.

I have my second cold in a month. This time, except for vitamin C, an occasional hot ginger-lemon toddy, and something to treat the symptoms, I'm letting it run its course rather than trying to fend it off with Cold-Eeze or Zicam or Airborne ("invented by a teacher!"). It always comes full-force eventually—why delay the inevitable?

My dog is moving slowly but hanging in at age 15 or 16. There's a crisis every so often—the latest being what appeared to be a broken bone or joint problem but turned out to be a  treatable hip-muscle sprain. I carry her up and down the six brick steps to the street; she can walk fine, but I don't want to push my luck. Someone is often going by just as I'm scooping her up or setting her down with a pat; sometimes I have to pause in the middle of our descent, holding her in my arms, to let a pedestrian pass. I usually get a look of one kind or another. I'm sure some think I'm simply a coddler—which would be more believable if she didn't weigh 40 pounds. Most often I get a sympathetic smile.

This time of year, as the light slants through clear or clouded glass, perhaps we're being asked to bide our time, to wait for the frail to pass or be borne up, to attend with compassion, even joy, the colors' late burning.

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Monday, October 07, 2013

Are You Alright?

On Friday, July 6, of last year, I got the news from a hospice nurse that my almost 92-year-old father probably wouldn't live through the weekend. I left work and made the 40-minute drive with my brother from the city to Dad's assisted-living facility in the suburbs.

I'd made that journey countless times in the preceding four years, and before that to the house in another suburb where he and my mother had lived for half a century: to deliver prescriptions, figure out why the cable wasn't working, bring a meatloaf, take him to the doctor, take him to physical therapy, take him to McDonald's, shovel the sidewalk, have a cup of tea, try to cheer both of them up or run interference—just be there.

Now, I realized, this might actually be the last time I'd make that drive for him. (Mom was still very much alive, though in the grip of dementia.) Each time I visited, there was less of him there. His small, thin body curled in bed or slumped in a wheelchair, the ever-shortening sentences of this linguist, this man of words.

I'd been slowly saying goodbye for years.

In the car, my brother and I knew, there was little left to talk about. What do you say when all of life has been lived, all measures taken, all opportunities for denial or solutions exhausted? So we awkwardly chatted about our jobs, our health, the weather—I don't even know what. My brother manned the text messages—to his wife, our two sisters (both out of town), his office—as I drove. We made more small talk, then were quiet for a long stretch.

I don't remember if the radio was already playing or if I turned it on at that point. But into the silence came a familiar voice. 

Are you alright?
All of a sudden you went away.
Are you alright?
I hope you come back around someday.

Are you alright?
I haven't seen you in a real long time.
Are you alright?
Could you give me some kind of sign?
Lucinda Williams. I'd never heard this particular song, though I used to follow her avidly. As we drove on, I gazed out the window listening to her unmistakable car-wheels-on-a-gravel-road voice, full of the ragged strength of survival and the fragility of longing. I felt as if a piece of music I didn't even know had flown out of my heart, giving voice to my worry and anticipated loss. 
Are you alright?
I looked around me and you were gone.
Are you alright?
I feel like there must be something wrong.

Are you alright?
'Cause it seems like you disappeared.
Are you alright?
'Cause I been feeling a little scared.
Are you alright?
 


But it wasn't only the words. It was the timing of it, the mind-reading. 

I begged the silence to continue till the end of the song, then directed the sentiment to my brother: Please don't start talking, I thought. Please. Let's just listen. 

And this, underlying it all, directed to someone else: Don't go before we get there.

Are you sleeping through the night?
Do you have someone to hold you tight?
Do you have someone to hang out with?
Do you have someone to hug and kiss you,
Hug and kiss you, hug and kiss you?

Are you alright? 

We made it through almost the entire song, were less than a mile away from our destination, when my brother spoke. 

"Are you a Lucinda Williams fan?"

I flinched and for an instant didn't want to say anything in reply. He'd broken the spell, intercepted the message. But I answered anyway. I couldn't hold it against him.

"I am," I said, "but I've kind of lost touch with her."

Are you alright?
Is there something been bothering you?
Are you alright?
I wish you'd give me a little clue.

Are you alright?
Is there something you wanna say?
Are you alright?
Just tell me that you're okay . . . . 
I'd seen Lucinda live, had several of her albums. But after 2001's Essence, which a friend gave my ex and me when we were living together, I never bought another. No particular reason—like friendships, sometimes musical relationships wane or go on hiatus, through no one's fault. Here she was again.

The song finally ended, and my brother and I were there. 

For the next 13 hours, we sat with Dad, my partner, D., joining us for most of that time. We brought Mom in for a short while—a chance for our parents to complete a circle, even though neither was fully aware. It gave us peace of mind.

Just around midnight, he died. And another long silence descended.

Sometime after that day, I put the song on my iPod. I haven't listened to it too often, and I haven't yet bought any more of Lucinda's music. But I know it's there, waiting.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Smoke, or a Belated Account of a Memory

Occasionally I'll come across the following unfinished vignette among the drafts of blog posts I've never published. I can't even tell when exactly I wrote it, because the date has changed to the most recent time I opened the file. I can say that the events described would have been in 2005 or 2006. 

There's not much to the story other than what you see here. I  just now put an ending of sorts on it. But in actuality it's only a sketch in a longer narrative about a period in my life that I've yet to write—a house with so many doors and windows that I have no idea where to enter. Maybe this is a start.

***

It was just about exactly two years ago that I met a guy online who was doing reconstruction work in Iraq and was in DC for a training session. I guess you could say we had a little fling over the course of his few days here, though the fling was mostly composed of dinners and walks and e-mails commenting on past dinners and walks or setting up the next dinners and walks. Mostly.

Really, we only saw each other on three evenings, not even successive ones, so I'm exaggerating just a touch.

He was an extremely sweet guy with whom I had little in common, except for the wish to be company for someone who obviously was in need of—and appreciative of—that. Okay, maybe I wanted company, too.

He had been in Iraq for a year or so and had just signed up for another. He wasn't in the military, though he looked as if he could have been. (He got his hair cut by the military barbers.) He did administrative work—training Iraqi businesses owners in accounting, in which he had a degree. I'm pretty certain he was a Republican, though we both tried to avoid the topic of politics, and largely succeeded.

On our last night together, we went to his hotel room and he spent an hour or more showing me pictures of himself, his coworkers, and sights in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East—that bleak, ravaged, armored landscape we see in the paper and online every day. It was fascinating, and kind of unreal, to be looking at someone's computer and clicking through pictures he'd taken in a war zone. He had ridden down Baghdad's infamously violent Airport Road, which I read about again in yesterday's paper.

He had virtually no social life over there. I asked how the military crowd he worked and ate meals with was with his being gay, and he said they were cool, it wasn't much of an issue. I now think he probably wasn't out at all in his workplace.

With the passage of time, I've also started to suspect he might have been in the CIA.

The next morning, we exchanged e-mail addresses—it was a Monday, and I had to call work to say I hadn't slept well and would be late. I walked home from his hotel thinking we'd stay in touch, that maybe I'd be one of his few contacts with gay life for the rest of his time in the Middle East. My lips were raw—that I remember well. 

I e-mailed him right away to thank him, and at least once more after he would have been back in Iraq. He never replied.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Linda Ronstadt

I
Los Angeles Times
I've never seen her in person. Unlike other musical acts I've been anywhere from interested in to borderline obsessed with over the years—Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, Iris Dement, Peter, Paul and
Mary, even Bruce Springsteen (whom I feel lucky have seen once in my life—35 years ago, and he was filling stadiums then!)—the opportunity has never been right and/or has rarely presented itself to see Linda.

It could have happened just a week ago when she was in Washington for the National Book Festival, plugging her new memoir—on my birthday no less—but D. and I went to Philadelphia for the day to have dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. Another chance, perhaps the last, missed.

II
I did buy her book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, and devoured it in a little more than a day. It's amazingly well written, if highly selective and a little imbalanced—a long, vivid, and transporting chapter on her childhood in Tucson followed by chapters of varying lengths tracking her career, dwelling on landmarks like the making of her breakthrough album, Heart Like a Wheel, and virtually skipping over some others, such as my all-time favorite of hers, Hasten Down the Wind.

III
Ansel Adams
"The place where I grew up bore no resemblance whatsoever to the pictures in the little books I read as a child. I wondered what kind of a place would have such an abundance of lollipop trees and lush green meadows that didn't even have to be watered with a hose. Instead, we had the giant cacti known as saguaros. These enormous plant beings (I can think of no other way to describe them) grow within a few hundred miles of Tucson and no place else on the face of the earth. They are the cleverest of water hoarders and can expand their leathery green skin to capture as much as a ton of additional water. Saguaros produce an extravagantly voluptuous white blossom, which is the bravest gesture I can imagine in an environment so purely hostile to plant growth." —Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

IV
Linda recorded "Keep Me From Blowing Away," from Heart Like a Wheel, in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I grew up. I find this is one of the most stunning facts in the book. She came down with the flu in 1974 while passing through Washington with a Jackson Browne tour and ended up staying behind to recover at the Bethesda house of John Starling, a member of the Seldom Scene whom she had met through her friend Emmylou Harris. A snowstorm came, and there was a houseful of musicians, one of whom was Paul Craft, who wrote "Keep Me From Blowing Away," which she decided to record as soon as she could—which in this case was at the nearby Silver Spring studio (who knew?) of the engineer George Massenburg, whom she ended up working with many times later in LA.

I have no idea where in Silver Spring his studio was, but I love to think that I—12 years old and soon to be in the thrall of Linda Ronstadt—was probably no more than a few miles away from the creation of a piece of this seminal record.

V
Linda is now probably as well known, if not better known, for her albums of American standards that she recorded in the 1980s with Nelson Riddle as she is for her country-rock and pop hits of the 1970s, but to me her work from the '70s will forever define her. She has not done anything since that has come close to that in my estimation, or that suited her voice better (with two exceptions, neither one a solo project: the first Trio record with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and a great duet album she made in 1999 with Emmylou, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions).

Thinking a lot about her, as I have been over the last several weeks with the release of her book and the news that she's suffering from Parkinson's disease, I've come to realize that I actually felt betrayed and angry when, in 1981 (I was 19), she abandoned rock for a turn on Broadway in The Pirates of Penzance, which was followed by a less successful run in La Bohème at the Public Theater and then those standards, followed later by the hugely successful albums of Mexican songs.

Something changed in her voice, which she rightfully acknowledges in her book as a new color, richness, and range. Yes, technically, she became a much stronger singer—anyone could detect that—but what I've always heard is an almost synthetic quality, a hyper-polished, often girlishly breathy veneer over what was once raw, from the gut, and far more sensual. (You can hear the effect on her pop singing especially on her mega-popular 1989 duets with Aaron Neville, which I think sound almost computer-generated in their trilling, glittery acrobatics.)

VI
Linda's definitive albums:

Heart Like a Wheel (1974) 
Prisoner in Disguise (1975)
Hasten Down the Wind (1976)
Simple Dreams (1977)
Living in the USA  (1978)

I'm undecided about including her next album, Mad Love (1980), in large part a trend-victim foray into new wave (including three Elvis Costello covers) that met with mixed reception but that I liked. I guess I'd say it's part of my definitive Linda Ronstadt years (and the last of her records I bought for a long, long time) but stylistically not equal to the "canon." Likewise her pre-Heart Like a Wheel album, Don't Cry Now, has some lasting moments (including "Love Has No Pride" and "Desperado") but was mostly a hint of what was to come.

VII
Linda first came onto my radar with the inescapable Top 40 hits from Heart Like a Wheel, "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved." She remained merely a radio presence until one of my older sisters put Hasten Down the Wind on her Christmas list in 1976, when I was 15, and I gave it to her (probably about $5.99 at Kemp Mill Records in Wheaton, Maryland). My sister was into the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Little Feat at the time, all musicians who were part of Linda's circle, but it turned out that I listened to Hasten Down the Wind more than she did. I played it all the time and never even had my own copy till she went away to college (it's even possible that I appropriated hers when her tastes moved on; I can't remember). The next Christmas, I got Simple Dreams from Santa.

VIII
I was shy and solitary and didn't really socialize outside of school until I was a senior (I went to a private school and few of my classmates lived near me). My circle was my family, and because I was the youngest of four, my siblings were increasingly unavailable as they pursued activities of their own and then went off to college. I spent a lot of time listening to records by myself. Imagine a skinny 16-year-old kid who never went out or got into trouble tucked up by the stereo singing along to Linda's cover of Warren Zevon's "Carmelita"—Carmelita, hold me tighter. I think I'm sinking down. And I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town . . . .

My parents were wrapped up in their pursuits—my father in his books, my mother in her teaching and graduate work, so they probably didn't give lyrics like that much more thought than I did (even I  didn't give them much thought)—but my mother came to like many of Linda's songs, especially "Blue Bayou" and (an early hint of Linda's later recordings of standards) "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." The prettier ballads were something Mom and I shared.

IX
Last weekend, when I was briefly considering going to see Linda at the book festival, I imagined what I might say to her as she signed my copy. "You probably have a lot of men telling you that you were a key figure in their adolescence, but I can tell you you were important to gay boys, too. . . ." Where I would have gone with that, I have no idea. It's probably just as well I didn't get the chance. The day after her appearance, I read Henry Alford's New York Times column on awkward celebrity encounters, in which "we want to parse or mediate an entity that is at once wholly familiar but wholly unknown to us; we want to touch the proverbial screen."

What did Linda Ronstadt mean to a gay teenager in the 1970s? Like Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon, she was, for me, a fantasy on which to project my ideas of an unknown territory—but it was all about aesthetics, about sensation, not sexuality. The famous Annie Leibovitz red-negligee photo spread in Rolling Stone, the gauzy white dress on Hasten Down the Wind, Linda gazing off into the Malibu distance—these might as well have been scents of perfume (Charlie! Jean Naté!), a mirrored tray of jeweled necklaces and silk tassels on a dresser, an overheard story about a first date on a winter night, the guy in a puffy down vest, the girl in Frye boots. A future I might someday see. They say just once in life you find someone that's right. But the world looks so confused, I can't tell false from true . . . .

X







XI
I've never felt it was cool to love Linda Ronstadt. I remember when we were teenagers, my brother made a dismissive comment about performers who "only" sang rather than writing songs and playing instruments. It stuck with me, and deep down I felt there must have been something deficient in Linda, and even more in my affection for her.

But what I now know is that she has a musician's and scholar's knowledge of music history, harmony, instrumental arrangement, and the way the voice works. She also can describe a musician's particular qualities like a real writer.

Here she is on Randy Newman, whose adaptation of Faust she sang on (and whose voice makes my own skin crawl, though I recognize his musicianship and songwriting skill): "Randy's songs can be bleak. Not to seem a hard man, he will insert a shard of comfort so meager it seems Dickensian. His songs are superbly crafted, with a musical tension that results from this combination of hope and utter despair. In his orchestrations, he might comment on the narrative being carried by the singer, using the instruments to deliver the jabs. Singing in the midst of one of his arrangements can feel like taking part in a boisterous discussion, with people of unevenly matched intelligence, sensibility, and insight ranting and squabbling."


XII
When I was in Vermont earlier this month, I read a New York Times article about Linda in which she discussed her Parkinson's and her forthcoming memoir. That was the gateway to all of this—she's been on my mind ever since. In a used-CD store in Brattleboro, I bought two of her later records I'd never listened to apart from a song or two. Feels Like Home (1995), whose beautiful title song is by Randy Newman, contains some good performances that could stand up to those of her '70s heyday ("High Sierra," "Morning Blues," "Women Cross the River"). We Ran (1998)—which turned out to be the last solo pop-rock album she recorded—is a lot more uneven.

But I keep listening to them and will no doubt add others to my collection. Not having listened to her much at all for decades, I've started loading her '70s masterworks onto my iPod.

I may one day give her American Songbook projects (Lush Life, etc.) more of a serious listen, or even her mariachi records. But for now the fancy getups, the mannered hairdos, the crinkly-nose smiles of those undertakings just don't interest me. Even as I find I'm more interested than ever in her.

XIII
I've written a lot about having been a solitary, sometimes lonely kid. But thinking back on those days and my love of Linda Ronstadt doesn't make me feel sad or like something I want to distance myself from (though I did distance myself from it for a long time). I feel incredibly attached to this music. These are all really fond memories.

I've never met anyone in adulthood who shared my passion for Linda—not my current partner, not my previous one, not any friends I can think of. I don't know why that is. She still has millions of fans, as the crowds at her appearances have proved. I just don't seem to know any of them.

Linda is at a tough point in her life right now, no longer able to sing and dealing with a serious diagnosis, but here is what I've gleaned: She has a lot of friends, two kids she's proud of, an accomplished and varied body of work to look back on, a fierce engagement with issues she cares about, such as immigration, and—what I've never really appreciated till recently—the great respect of her fellow musicians. There's nothing deficient about her at all (or about me). In short, a life well lived, generously and unpretentiously, whose latest turn she seems to be facing with equanimity and acceptance. I wish her well.

The biggest surprise: After all these years, I find I'm still growing into her.

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