PAST NOT PAST (Memory Lane: 1979, 2018)

One quiet thing I wanted to do last week on vacation was stop off at the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center where I worked in the summer of 1979 and where, in the midst of an otherwise lovely experience, I made the worst decision of my life and thus acquired my most painful memory.

It doesn’t matter what the memory was. I wrote about it here, but it’s sort of incidental because this trip down Memory Lane is about the distance between memory, the present and the physical world that ties them together. The specifics matter to me, but I don’t want to get tangled up in them because I suspect everybody had their own set of specifics that could reach out and grab them at a given moment–I hope on that basis you’ll be able to relate.

You’d think if any place hadn’t changed much it would be a Conference Center run by the Southern Baptist Convention. Having not been near the place since the summer of 1982 (when I visited with my Dad for an actual conference week), any change was bound to deliver a bit of a shock.

Since, specifics or no, I was there to expiate the biggest mistake of my life, any change was bound to depress me, to make the mistake seem even larger and more irredeemable.

And I did expect those changes and those feelings.

What I didn’t expect was for the changes themselves to be so specific–to put new arrows in me because the only places that had been buried (as opposed to altered) by the expected changes were the places I wanted to see again.

The boys’ dorm is gone, under concrete now. The girls’ dorm is changed beyond recognition. I couldn’t even figure out where to park and the guest spaces were far too distant for me to walk (age and disease have sapped my legs).

So much for that side of the interstate, though I did make it into the building where reception and the check-in desk still remain, where they were nice enough to give me a map so I could find the place I really wanted to see, which was the softball field.

The only place I’ve ever written about what happened at the softball field was in one of my unpublished novels. Don’t worry, I won’t burden you with that scene. The important thing last week was that I wanted to see a place where I sat on a hillside.

The softball field is still there, more or less. It doesn’t look well-maintained but that could be because its the off-season.

The hillside is still there, just as I remembered, slanting steeply toward Interstate 40, which still divides the Boys Camp side from the Conference Center and Girls Camp side. The bridge you walk across to get from one side to the other remains.

It would have been great–and cathartic I think–to march half-way up that hillside (for that, my aching legs would have made the effort) and sit and think and remember a while.

Unfortunately forty years is a long time. Long enough for the hillside to have become covered with fifty-foot pines.

Which meant I did my thinking in my car, gazing across time, space, and the dilapidated softball field, listening, by pure coincidence if you believe in such things, to the very last music you should ever listen to when the memory of the worst mistake of your life is crowding in, namely the third disc of Rhino’s Lorraine Ellison box.

It consists of her singing/whispering demo versions of some of the haunting songs she recorded in the wake of the one song everyone knows her for if they know her at all.

Sitting there in my car, I couldn’t hear the music at all. It was playing. My ears were aware of it, but my mind couldn’t shake the song everyone knows her for, and, a week later, it can’t shake the idea that the idea animating the song everyone knows her for was part of the reason I made the biggest mistake of my life in the Summer of 1979, even though I wouldn’t hear of Lorraine Ellison or any of her songs for another decade.

Time is like that. Fluid.

Real time I mean, not what we keep by clocks and calendars. If it were only that, it would come and go and leave us alone.

If any one emotion ruled me in the Summer of 1979 (and the several years that led up to and away from it, in turn), it was Fear.

If any one song has ever defined Fear, it’s the song Lorraine Ellison is most known for.

Her best-known song has two people in it–call them the Leaver and the Left Behind. My greatest Fear, in the Summer of 1979, was being either one of those people.

I spent the Summer of 1979 having a good time…and failing to deal with my Fear.

I spent an hour last week trying to decide–yet again, as I have, off and on again, for nearly forty years–whether I’d trade every good thing that’s ever happened to me (and there have been quite a few) for the chance to go back and face my Fear, not only for the sake of repairing the damage I did to myself but the damage I now suspect I did to someone else who hardly ever knew I existed.

Heavy, I know. But seeing those pine trees in that one spot where I really wanted to sit again and wonder if it was ever really all that big a deal, made me feel forty years was a thousand…and an eye blink.

I came to no new conclusions. One thing I do know. The song Lorraine Ellison is known for–recorded on the one afternoon where she was the greatest singer in the world, deeper than Aretha, more intense than Janis, a year ahead of either being known for anything worthwhile–is the only record that can make me believe, for three minutes at least, that I might possibly have done the right thing.

Thanks Lorraine.

I think.

[Note: This is oh-by-the-way, but if anyone ever wants to know whether Rock and Roll Hall of Fame spots are sometimes purely political, I recommend listening to Lorraine Ellison, who, even without “Stay With Me,” is ten times the singer Nina Simone or Joan Baez ever were, and ask yourself why exactly they’re in the Hall and, if you brought up Ellison’s name at a Nominating Committee meeting, no one would even know what you were talking about.]

SEGUE OF THE DAY (10/21/12)

Lorraine Ellison/Lorraine Ellison

Ellison’s signature record, “Stay With Me,” was so definitively unrepeatable that I had no idea what to expect from Sister Love: The Warner Brothers Recordings, three discs covering her career at the label, which consisted of fifty finished tracks and sixteen (exquisitely sung) demos cut between 1966 and 1974.

Rhino Handmade released this box a few years back and I landed it some time early this year. Just got around to playing it today.

As expected, there is nothing to match “Stay With Me” (very little does, after all).

Also as expected, anybody who made a record that great was bound to have something more to offer (she does).

She covered a lot of territory–straight black gospel arrangements, supper club versions of American Songbook standards, Motown covers (the only time she came close to being indifferent), keen, often revelatory, surveillance of the contemporary pop scene, the inevitable, post-1967 bow to Aretha Franklin’s massive influence (which sits easier on Ellison than most because she can match Franklin’s nerve and sensitivity and very nearly equal her power and range, plus she was fully on the case a year or two sooner).

Oddly enough, though, her deep-but-decidedly-left-field soul identity on this chronological document snaps into focus in the middle of the second disc with a couple of 1970 covers that track from opposite sides of the universe and–perhaps for that reason–went unreleased at the time.

The first is “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” the Hollies’ stone cold Devil’s Island anthem, which she slows to a decidedly anti-anthemic crawl and personalizes in a way I would not have thought possible. There’s no way to know, but she might have seen the new Jim Crow–the relentless legal and cultural assault on black males that would grow from the backlash to the Civil Rights movement’s great triumphs and take its purest form in the “reform” of the American prison system (now so thoroughly remade as to be the envy of totalitarian states everywhere)–as, indeed, a very long road “from which there is no return.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into it on short acquaintance, but her version (sorry but I couldn’t find it on YouTube or any other linkable source) certainly sounds like a cry for some very specific pain to stop and I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume “he’s my brother” is always going to mean something different when one oppressed human being is singing it to another than when–as on every other version I’ve heard–it’s uttered as a purely idealistic abstraction.

After that, she sails straight into “Caravan,” one of Van Morrison’s free-flowing Moondance miracles and the placement serves as a thorough check on “He Ain’t Heavy’s” improbably convincing doominess.

From turning optimism into doubt, she moves effortlessly to grounding Morrison’s soaring mysticism. She slows that one down, too, and believe me, when she finally reaches the uplift lines in the chorus, “Turn it up, a little bit higher” never sounded more earned (alas, again no link available).

The liner notes indicate Ellison–who basically left the business in the mid-seventies after the last of these recordings and died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 51–was deeply and understandably disappointed in her lack of commercial success.

It’s certainly possible that, had she lived and persevered, she might have had a last act similar to Betty LaVette’s (LaVette is another once-obscure soul singer who has received a lot of attention in the last few years. The attention is deserved, but–then or now–she’s not the singer Ellison was).

In any case, I’m glad I didn’t get to the end of my road without finally making her full acquaintance one lazy Sunday afternoon.

More proof, I guess, that rock and roll is bottomless.