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The only place I’ve ever written about what happened at the softball field was in one of my unpublished novels.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.]

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2018….WITH CAVEATS

This is a bit belated. I expressed my concerns about this year’s ballot here and I guess there wasn’t much likelihood of this being one of the more sterling classes. Still, it needn’t have been such a hot mess. Putting Link Wray in would have made up for a lot.

Anyway, those inducted as performers were Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Sister Rosetta Tharpe received a much deserved (and long overdue) induction as an Early Influence.

All well and good, except…

Nina Simone should have been inducted in the nonexistent Contemporary Influence category I’ve been calling for for years. There’s no reason she should take up a Performer slot when so many others who are more deserving in that category (Spinners, War, Dionne Warwick, the aforementioned Mr. Wray…one could go on) are left hanging. Like last year’s inductee Joan Baez, Simone’s influence and legacy were more political than musical. They deserve inclusion, just not in the Performer category, because very little of what they performed was Rock and Roll even in the broad definition I prefer.

In the best Purist tradition, her best-known songs were epic….and done better by others….

Bon Jovi continues a discouraging trend toward white boy bands (Journey, Chicago, Yes) who sold a hundred million records and left little trace on the culture. There aren’t that many left and I’m not averse to honoring them. But where’s the sense of priority that a self-anointed Hall of Fame owes History? They are also the first act ever inducted in the Performer category who never made a single record I love (yes, even the Grateful Dead and the Sex Pistols reached me a time or two). But that’s just a personal note. I’d feel a lot better about it if somebody could demonstrate just how Rock and Roll would have been the lest bit different if they never existed. They did do one record I almost liked…Sounds like Poison. Wish I knew if that was the point.

The Cars are worthy. They were the most popular Power Pop band and also one of the best. I have a preference for acts who either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one. The Cars fall just short of either, but they’re close enough to doing both that I feel they are one of those bands who still carved out a worthy place all their own. That holds up on the radio, because of all the thousand times I’ve heard one of their many hits whilst driving around, I never once mistook them for anyone else. (They’re also the only act I voted for who actually made it in, so, the ballot being what it was, no complaints).

Dire Straits is an odd case. The band was faceless except for Mark Knopfler. I would have put Knopfler in the Musical Excellence category (which hasn’t been utilized enough anyway). That would have honored his band’s handful of epic sides and his stellar work as a session guitarist with an unmistakable touch, best heard here:

The Moody Blues are another white boy band (albeit one with a great name!) who the Nominating Committee flirted with for years before putting them on the ballot. They’re more deserving than Bon Jovi (or a few others already in), so at least they don’t lower any standards. And I was happy to see Denny Laine included in the Hall membership, because–even though I’m not even a little immune to the considerable charms of “Nights In White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon”–their initial hit single, on which Laine provided the lead guitar and vocal, was their greatest, and one of the best records of Rock and Roll’s greatest era. Besides, he got gypped when Wings weren’t inducted with Paul McCartney.

[NOTE: Don’t miss Neal Umphred’s experience with the RRHOF. He had a chance to be a voter. And then, this very Moody’s related experience happened.]

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Even when the Hall gets it right, they often get it wrong. Sister Rosetta deserved induction long ago (for her impact on Elvis alone) and Early Influence is the proper category. But she was included on the ballot in this year’s Performer voting category, presumably pulling votes from others (Link Wray perhaps?) and, in any case, taking a place on the ballot from some other deserving performer when she was going to be put in by the Hall Nom Committee anyway (reminiscent of what they did with Wanda Jackson a few years back).

Well, if anyone could have appreciated the absurdity of it all, it would have been the woman who walked the line between the sacred and the profane straighter and truer than anyone….