This was fun. Out of the Blue, Lee Hedgepeth, a reporter from Birmingham radio station CBS42, called me a couple of days ago and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed about Joni Mitchell’s 1976 Tuscaloosa concert. He contacted me after reading my post, “Love Song for Joni,” on “Professional Southerner.” Perhaps I come across as a little too much of a “fanboy,” but I always appreciate the opportunity to praise a unique musical icon.
November 2020 in north Alabama ended with a day of persistent wet snow flurries. There were temperatures in the 70s last week; the ground was far too warm for accumulation, but November snow is rare and seemed to energize the people in the grocery check-out.
My cashier asked if I was enjoying the snow; I am sorry that I truthfully answered that I am not a big fan of snow and cold weather. It turned out she was from Alaska and was excited to see any snow, so the remainder of our transaction was a bit chilly (pun intended, I guess).
As this dismal year draws to a close, I look forward to a responsible conclusion to the holiday season. I relish the start of a new year and a new administration and the promise it holds.
In this December of 2020, I am startled to realize that in a few days we will mark the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder. For most Baby Boomers, the event is one that is etched in memory.
In that week of December 1980, I was completing my first semester in graduate school and giving final exams to my English 101 composition students as a graduate teaching assistant. On Monday night, I had just completed grading a round of exams when my friend Bill Golightly dropped by to see if I wanted to go downtown to the Chukker; I had no exams on Tuesday, as either a student or a teacher, so I grabbed a jacket and we headed out.
In those days, the Chukker proudly did not have a phone or a television. It had a sparse menu, drinks, pool, pinball, and music.
Most people seem to have first heard about the death of John Lennon from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football’s Dolphins-Patriots game.
Cosell’s voice wasn’t heard in the Chukker that night, but Bill and I noticed that the bartender, Deborah, had walked into the back room and was quietly weeping. When she had collected herself, we called her over and asked if she was okay.
“John Lennon was shot. He’s dead,” was her answer.
One of her friends had apparently stopped by to tell her the news. The entire room went silent. Of course, we asked the pointless question, “Are you sure?”
Bill and I decided we needed confirmation. “Barry will know,” I said. “Let’s call Barry.” The nearest pay phone was a block away so we hurried there to call our friend, Barry, who always seemed to be an insider with the latest news from the music scene. By that time, though, cars were cruising down 6th Street with John Lennon or classic Beatles songs blaring from car radios and stereos. So, we knew.
I called Barry anyway. He picked up on the first ring. “Is it true?”
Bill and I headed back to my neighborhood, which I fondly referred to as the “student ghetto.” Music by the Beatles and Lennon was coming out of every window, it seemed, as other friends joined us for what turned into an impromptu wake at my place.
I had no reason to be on campus the next day, so I stayed in on Tuesday. The phone rang often. Friends from all over the country felt a need to call and commiserate. We were all checking on one another.
I won’t embellish: I was never really a major Beatles fanatic. I enjoyed the music as soon as it hit and appreciated its overwhelming brilliance and cultural influence; some of the Beatles songs are among my favorites. On the night that the Beatles made their live American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” we were at church. But at a fellowship at someone’s home later, the kids gathered in one of the bedrooms and played “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” over and over.
I would like for “In My Life” to be played at my memorial. The unobtrusive George was my favorite Beatle. Post-Beatles, I rooted for John Lennon in his challenges and was happy that he seemed to have gotten himself and his music in a good place.
His passing – and so violently – was a generational touchstone for so many of us. Our years of coming to consciousness were marked by Cold War, Vietnam, assassinations, and social upheaval. To have one of our icons – the auteur of “Give Peace a Chance” – gunned down on Central Park West, outside his home with his wife looking on, defied, for the moment, logic and rational comprehension.
On Wednesday of that week, I returned to campus to give a final to one of my freshman composition classes. The final part of the exam was a short essay – an analysis of a contemporary song lyric. The options were lyrics by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen. One of my students chose Mitchell’s “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” for his explication essay. He entitled it “Give Peach a Chance.” The title was a stretch, but much appreciated.
A few years later, on my first trip to New York City, the only photographs I took were at Strawberry Fields, the area of Central Park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. This was not intentional; when I got home, I realized that in five days in New York the Central Park memorial was the only time I took a picture.
The Chukker is long closed. Bill Golightly died on January 2 of this year. And John Lennon would be 80 if he had lived.
I am embracing the holiday spirit, but a piece of music that sticks in my mind today is Olivier Messiaen’s chamber piece, “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen composed the piece while he was a prisoner of war in a German stalag during World War II. The quartet premiered in a 1941 prison performance with other prisoners of war playing the other parts. It is an introspective and solemn work; somehow, too, it is jubilant and hopeful. It seems to be an ideal composition for an uncertain time.
Thirty years ago, as the first day of December eased in on a cold midnight, I was sitting at the City Pier on the New London, Connecticut, waterfront. I was in the former whaling center and seaport on tour with a theatre group and had just completed a long and difficult work day in a long and occasionally demanding schedule.
As late and as cold as it was, I had walked through the quiet, empty town toward the water in a light snow to let the frigid sea air clear my head. The walk to the waterfront includes a charming statue of an earnest Eugene O’Neill as a boy, writing intently on his tablet. The acclaimed playwright spent boyhood summers at his family’s Monte Cristo Cottage a couple of miles down the harbor.
As I sat at the harbor, I listened to George Winston’s classic 1982 album December on my Walkman. That music became a frequent companion on the fall 1989 tour. It relaxed me in particularly stressful times.
As each December approaches, I find myself thinking about the soothing music of December. It speaks to the title’s power of suggestion that I only think about that album when December approaches; I would never think of listening to it after New Year’s Eve. Winston’s meditative solo piano perfectly captures the mood of the winter holiday season with its long dark nights, bittersweet memories, pensive moods, and festive gatherings.
December is upon us in this Thanksgiving week of late November. Holiday decorations are beginning to pop up in neighborhoods and stores are already a frenzy of commercial Christmas “cheer.” I plan to find my Christmas wreath at this Saturday’s Pepper Place Market in downtown Birmingham. My Christmas cards are boxed up and ready to be taken to the post office on December 1.
Everything in Alabama will seem to grind to a standstill on the afternoon of November 30 as the annual Iron Bowl football game between Alabama and cross-state rival Auburn occurs – the 84th time that this rivalry has been played. For years it was played in Birmingham’s Legion Field; now it alternates between Tuscaloosa and Auburn. It is as entrenched as any holiday tradition.
My annual December trip to the Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay is on hold. I took too long to figure out my dates and there seem to be no rooms at the inn. I will keep working on it, and I could always go somewhere else – or even take a room somewhere near Point Clear – but the pull of the Grand is strong for me this time of year and I am determined to still make it happen. Memories of Spanish moss hanging from holly trees on the lagoon are always a strong pull.
Another piece of music that comes to mind around December is Joni Mitchell’s classic, “River,” which writer Dan Chiasson calls “the song that, almost two thousand years late, made the Christmas season bearable.” “It’s coming on Christmas,” Mitchell sings, “They’re cutting down trees / Putting up reindeer / Singing songs of joy and peace // Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on …”
I prefer my rivers unfrozen, but the sentiment is clear. As dear as the Christmas holiday is, it can also be a time of stress and tension and feelings of loss. Whenever I hear somebody say, “I’ll be glad when the holidays are over,” I cringe a little.
But I get it, too.