I’ll start by saying I’ve seen Van Morrison performing live only once. In the fall up in the Berkshires at this outdoor theater named Tanglewood. I vaguely recall strolling gardens and understand summer symphony concerts at Tanglewood are still nice. Saturday when I saw Van Morrison, was a bracing, cold day–windy Fall in the Berkshires is akin to a spiritual awakening. It’s a special place we should all let overwhelm us once. See it once and tell your friends, like I’m doing now.
Bernstein liked to conduct at Tanglewood. The Berkshires must have seemed like paradise after a life of New York City. Never saw Bernstein conduct live, and probably should have. I do have all nine of his Beethoven symphonies on CD.
Seiji Ozawa Hall wasn’t built yet at Tanglewood. Just the original concert stage facing the lawn, and the original houses, on the property. William Rawn’s firm designed the concert hall. There’s a good book regarding Rawn’s early work called House by Tracy Kidder that’s worth reading if you’re considering engaging an architect for your dream house. Very true and damn funny. But I digress.
An interesting fact learned that weekend was that Norman Rockwell lived in Stockbridge–in the Berkshires. Who knew? I wasn’t into Saturday Evening Post art; not when living a short block from Louis Kahn’s art museum at Yale. But once you’ve visited where a man lives, it softens you, even makes you feel more kindly. The question is, does a person whose work is as accessible as Rockwell’s offer us lesser art because it’s easily digested? The painting of the prim mother and boy dressed in their Sunday best, praying over their diner meal, while the blue collar workers look on, confronted (possibly chastened) by their devotion, there was a 50s morality being clearly stated. The fact she’s dressed fancy, and they are in work clothes might imply something else, but let’s not get into politics.
It was time to take a break from grad school, get the hell out of New Haven for a weekend. Graduate school was a kick, but exhausting. My VW puttered on out of town, traveling a couple hours west into the hills, past village after cute village decked out in red and yellow foliage. The VW had an aspirating engine sound from the way the rings played in the pistons, and it averaged better downhill than up. If I accelerated on the downhills, I could expect to get up the next hill; it worked like an angel carrying us along and the oversized Buicks and Pontiacs didn’t blow by as fast. Newly married and poor as church mice on the dole, but the VW got us to the Berkshires that weekend.
The next year it got me and Ms. DC, the cat all the way south to Miami. Ms. DC liked to stand on the front seat with her paws on the handle the German car designers placed there for passengers to disembark, or to reposition themselves on the seat after a thrilling downhill. With her small black head peering just above the dash, people in the passing cars found Ms. DC highly entertaining.
Back when we roomed together in Clemson, Lewis helped me come to appreciate Van. I’d been stuck on this notion that Van’s big AM hit about a brown-haired girl was too pop, even if I recalled his days singing with a Brit group on harder stuff. After White Room and Crossroads, most everything else sounded like pop. But Lewis expanded my view of the boy. And taught me the chords to Wild Night. I remained a lousy dancer, however I tried.
Van released Wild Night on his Tupelo Honey album. I thought it epitomized a good rock song, and I’d crank up the stereo and dance. Lewis and I had the turntable, amp and speakers set up in the dining room alongside the reel-to-reel recorder, since neither of us owned a dining room table, and we needed space for the guitars. If we had a light in the dining room, I don’t remember one. It was always dark, so I danced there too.
Lewis showed me how to love some Van Morrison when we were living in that cheap ass rental. We lived in the village of Clemson. Twenty bucks a month each. Lewis conned a third boy to join us, so sixty all total. It was close to being condemned, a subdivided three-story experiment built by a Clemson engineer, so the story went. We had the basement level to ourselves. Man, that place was nasty. The brickwork looked like someone had used leftovers with jutting handholds to climb to the roof. We built coal fires in the two small fireplaces, ‘cause we couldn’t afford to fill the oil tank and still buy record albums and beer. I’m not lying.
My room had nice light, but was colder than a well digger’s ass come morning. The ‘sunroom’ had more single-pane glass than insulation. I stapled plastic over the glass to keep the air leaks to a mild breeze. The translucent plastic also assuaged my girlfriend’s need for privacy when she came to visit. Somewhat. I only remember one bathroom in the place. The first night Ms DC, the wildcat spent with me, she crawled under the covers and didn’t come out till the following noon when the room warmed up.
She’d confronted me the previous night when I arrived home, meowing to raise the dead, telling me how hard a life she had thus far–she was a young, hungry cat, and I had to let her in, which I did. Part Siamese, all tortoiseshell and she talked like she had something to say. She always had something to say. Ms. DC (for Damn Cat after she stole my flank steak that first night) was the smartest cat I’ve ever known. I’m not ashamed to say I cried when she died later. Her bones are still in the grave in that crash zone for the Miami International Airport.
In the sun-filled bucolic house in Clemson, there was a hole in the back wall of the pantry you could put your fist through. Lewis advised me not to mention that to his girlfriend visiting from Hot ‘Lanta on account of he saw a spider near the same size going into it one day. Talking tarantula-size. His girlfriend seemed was too much a princess for spider holes, but she was damn pretty, and she came visiting with this gray Persian named Woo Chee for some damn reason. I think she got her geography mixed up with the name. We’ll get to Mr. Woo Chee in a moment.
Lewis, Mike and I would only keep canned food in the pantry, nothing for the spider to eat; we figured the spider couldn’t handle a can opener. I suspected Lewis might have been stoned when he described the spider. I kept an eye out but never did spot him. But I never put my hand in that hole either.
Lewis and I had this ritual, hygienically born out of all the garbage bags we accumulated called “taking out the kitchen.” The back porch held lots more of them. Then it became “taking out the porch.” We were both tough to kill southerners somewhat lax about the housekeeping.
This was the first place off-campus either of us had lived in. I called my mother long distance about easy dinner recipes and she told me “take a can of mushroom soup, add canned tuna and some bread crumbs.” We ate pounds of tuna casserole that winter. I don’t recall Lewis was any better a cook than I. She also gave me her recipe for tomato pie (another casserole that worked with broiled chicken).
There’s a place in Duck, OBX run by ex-hippies who has a pretty good tomato pie, but I can’t figure out the recipe.
When the ex-Army Ranger upstairs, who was so intense about his Bob Dylan that he read the liner notes, was handcuffed and hauled off at dawn by Pickens County deputies for selling non-prescription drugs, well, Lewis and I were happy it hadn’t involved us. A previous roommate had spent time in the Pickens County jail, and I will attest that was not a fit place, not even for the cockroaches climbing the walls. No sir.
Upstairs, the Vietnam vet was an intellectual, and before going on his county-sponsored sabbatical, when we’d join him to smoke a joint or two and listen to his Dylan collection, his commentary was entertaining. He turned us on to Leo Kottke, a finger picking genius who played with open chord tuning. He was a lean-faced boy always threatening to explode, who wore a knife in a leg sheath just in case. That kind of intensity needs a real home, and I don’t know if he ever found one. Peace, Paul.
Lewis knew what a guitar was meant to do. He played a Martin, then bought a steel string. To start, I had a no-name nylon string guitar. I later found a deal on a nice Gibson.
Willin’ was lots easier to harmonize on than Van Morrison, and I loved the Seatrain recording and Lowell’s lyrics, so we worked to get it right. We did a good job on that song. We were sympatico, Lewis and I, even if he was a quiet brooder, and I was praying for sainthood. He was the star of our class at Clemson.
Frank was another classmate we liked–he lived a block down the street in a real house with his wife and a St. Bernard he’d stick in the bathtub filled with ice to cool him down–the dog, not Frank–though at times he needed cooling down too. His presentations always won the professors’ praise. Frank had worked real jobs before starting college. He liked to tell the story about driving a tugboat, and laying a barge up against a bridge piling in the Savannah River. That may have convinced him to try college.
When I saw him at Tanglewood, Van was a lousy dancer which disappointed me. Can’t say who I was expecting to walk out, but a short, wide-beamed man with a porkpie hat looking awkward like it was his first gig, lips only mumbling, that was not the Van of my dreams. Then after he grabbed the mike and started into it, this growl issued from the sound system, and oh yeah, it was him. After a while his halfway high karate kicks didn’t faze me.
Nothing felt like it could be enough that day. Not enough Van, couldn’t get enough cool Berkshire air. Neither of us could, I don’t think. Even my second-hand German car was good as it got. And the desk dude at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge found us a room that night so we stayed over. Had dinner. Lived like real people. We were practicing.
Once I finished grad school and needed a job, I gambled on Florida. Jobs in New England for architects were thinning out faster than wedding guests after the punchbowl’s dry. Mainly because of the country-wide recession–not the punchbowl, the architects. Rumor was Florida was doing better. A lot of Clemson grads moved to Florida for jobs, seeing South Carolina wasn’t ever booming. Only a handful of Yale grads moved to Florida. But I knew for a fact there were architects working as bus boys in Boston, and no way could we afford to live in New York City, poor mice as we were.
A year earlier, Lewis beat me to it. He landed in Fort Lauderdale with his girlfriend, Alice. With no better foresight, than his telling me, “Sure. Come on down,” I took a shot at Miami. My disconsolate young spouse swore she’d leave Miami within a week, and she taped a calendar on the wall to mark off the days. We moved into an apartment complex near the airport where all the male airline pilots and very female stewardesses lived. Weekends getting burnt beside the swimming pool was no way disagreeable when the stewardesses were sunbathing, but I didn’t disagree with my wife either; Miami summer coming from New England fall was a shock to the cultural side of us both. I escaped weekends by packing my guitar in the VW and aspirating north to Fort Lauderdale for music. Playing guitar with Lewis was about the only creative thing going, other than working on the longest fantasy ever conceived. I planned to take longer than Tolkien’s ten years and was years into it already.
In my first job, I did go top to bottom through the vacant Miami Biltmore Hotel, and that survey was fun. One day I toured it with a Cuban American structural engineer named Lourdes to show her where the basement concrete slab under the driveway needed repairs. She was a young Florida State grad, so she spoke Spanglish in a cute southern way. But when we reached the long room where the stainless steel trays were silently arrayed in a line, and she asked, “where are we?” referring to the hotel’s last incarnation as a VA hospital during the war, I replied without thinking “this was the morgue.” She rushed out, leaving me to finish the basement survey by myself. I didn’t mean anything by it, but she’d fled the scene before I could apologize. Other times, walking the empty upstairs halls, looking out at the golf course, I’d wonder what the place must have been like before it went bankrupt in the Great Recession.
While living in Miami, I watched Lewis develop as a musician, and wished I could keep up with him. With practice we got our harmonies down. Mike would join us on harmonica, and we tried to teach him three-part singing. But when Lewis began to talk about finding a paying gig, I realized playing bars meant living inside all that smoke, being around the booze and the women, and none of that seemed like a good idea for someone with weak lungs and a weaker marriage. As poor an income I was bringing in, it beat playing in a bar band. So outside of a few gigs, we mostly played Saturday nights at Lewis and Alice’s. Dallas Alice. The time we celebrated her birthday with tequila before she’d even made it home from waitressing–that’s another story.
The deal with Mr. Woo Chee was, imitating his fulsome southern belle owner, he considered himself a prince among felines. Interrogating him, one could see he was all of that. Lewis, while he was loving the blond owner, got snookered into taking Woo Chee when she took off traveling. I woke up one morning with Woo Chee suckling my earlobe (this is where the kids need to leave the room) and Mr. Woo Chee found himself sailing across the sunroom upon my awakening. Fucking meow, as George Carlin once said in a gig.
Woo Chee’s payback came when Ms. DC went into heat, found her way across the basement at three in the morning, knocked off Lewis’ antique bathroom mirror perched behind a sink that came crashing down. It was either the crash or the howling cats that woke Lewis then me. Ms. DC then got knocked up herself while we cleaned up the glass. That had to be the fastest intercourse on record.
Now, let’s review the situation: a slightly cross-eyed tortoiseshell Siamese, horny thing that she was and a willing longhair Persian. What for pity’s sake would their offspring look like? Ms. DC wasn’t what you’d call a beauty, and a stray at that. Lewis’ girlfriend claimed her gorgeous Persian stud had been violated, even though I didn’t see him complaining. Woo Chee was about the most placid cat I knew. Getting laid probably helped.
Two months or so later, Ms. DC surprised everyone when her four kittens emerged: one jet black, two longhair cream colored, and a gray like the stud. Not an ugly kitten amongst them, and Ms. DC was a very proud mother. The black cat grew into an enormous tom who my buddy Byron and his wife Sally adopted and lived a good life out in the country. The two cream colored ones were taken by Lewis’s girlfriend. I visited them once when I stayed in Atlanta. The gray cat found a home, though I don’t recall with whom. Lewis broke up with his girlfriend while I was in graduate school, so what happened to Mr. Woo Chee and his offspring I never heard. Alice, Lewis’ new girlfriend was a girl who I greatly appreciated, on account of she was more laid back than Hot ‘Lanta.
Neither Lewis nor I read music, but Lewis could finger pick his way just by listening to records. He learned Can’t Find My Way Home that way, then showed me how to play it. I had to practice for hours, and mostly got it, but the easy way he played was something I could never touch.
We had finished with Masters degrees, mine in architecture, and his in urban planning. We’d studied together for the Florida architectural license exam, and both passed the first time, so neither of us were undereducated dummies, yet playing in bars seemed like a dream compared to the drafting studio. After the years working to get an education and a license, I was still tempted by music.
You do these things because they touch what’s too deep to be reached any other way. Not for glory, not for fame, not for followers. Just the music.
Lewis eventually bought a fine sound system, board, amp, speakers, the works. He practiced evenings in a rental storage unit and played weekends wherever he’d find a place. He met a guy who played electric guitar and he was likely to go electric himself.
My son and his wife got to Belfast a couple years ago. He and his brother, my girlfriend and I previously had gotten as close as Sligo. But back in the 90s the ‘Troubles; were still going full tilt boogie, and I wasn’t going to take my sons into that mess. County Clare has a bit of that story in it. The reason I mention Belfast is that’s Van Morrison’s hometown, and I’ve always marveled how well he’s used his growing up there in his music, which he’s surely done. White boys in America who ‘borrow’ from our African American brothers get a bad rap. But what the Brits (and occasional Mick) have done with the blues hasn’t been disputed. Not by me, anyway. It’s not what you borrow, but what you do with it.
It takes my partner to say she thinks Van Morrison has a solid blues voice. Right as always. I did think he muffed the stage dancing, but his growling lyrics I’ll find time for any day.
I had an OK tenor back then, and Lewis could sing anything. I’d sing above his lead, and we sounded tight. But five years after I’d landed in Florida, I packed the Ryder truck, put my three year old in the front seat and left the land of palms and retired Ohioans for a life in Northern Virginia. I regretted leaving Lewis, but he soon headed out to Oregon, so he didn’t hang around either. We’ve lost track of each other sad to say. Looking back, I don’t regret staying with architecture as a life’s work, but I do miss the music. And I miss knowing Lewis.
We’re granted only what we have, whether it’s what we need is the question. Mick had it all wrong.