Monday, August 24, 2009

Stirring the Imagination

I arrived in Nashville to write songs for the first time on the day that Marty Robbins died. It was December 8, 1982. The timing of my arrival seemed uncanny to me because Marty was one of my biggest boyhood heroes. How this came to be is a story in itself.

Before my father retired he worked at WIP Radio in Philadelphia for over 50 years. The station played a little bit of everything in the early 1960s- from Perry Como to Charlie Rich to Bobby Darin to Marty- before turning to Sports Talk in the late 1980s.

Mom kept the radio tuned to WIP all day long while she tended house because it made her feel close to pop. Sometimes a DJ on the air, either Bill Webber or Ken Garland, would share a joke with my old man as he sat behind the engineer’s glass. That would be the highlight of our morning as mom ironed and I played in the kitchen. The little joke beamed him home again for a few seconds through the radio waves.

I used to imagine how things looked down there inside the tower at Rittenhouse Square- the electronics glowing with ten foot tubes, or maybe it was fifty foot tubes, with wires running everywhere like tentacles and stuff bubbling in strange tanks. And there was pop behind the glass wearing his Buck Rogers headphones that could hear music on Mars. All in my weird inner world.

Every once in while the station manager would cull the LP library to discard duplicates and worn records and dad would bring home a magical stack for me. In one of them was Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads”. Now this was a record made for stirring up the imagination of a young boy. I spent hours listening to it on my little suitcase turntable while the bright sunbeams crept drowsily across the floor and I slid over a few inches along with them so I could stay warm. I dreamed of gunfighters at night.

Marty’s tall tales were wonderful, but he wasn’t the only raconteur on the radio back then. Muscular story-songs were popular in those days. Johnny Horton sang “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska”. Johnny Cash was scoring with “Wreck of the Old ‘97” and others. Jimmy Dean did "Big Bad John". It was a good time to be a storyteller and a great time to be a kid who loved flights of fancy.

I’ve noticed that words in books and words in songs can evoke something in my brain that pictures and movies can’t. It’s almost as if actually seeing something that I’ve previously only imagined is sort of a let down. I don’t know why… maybe I should’ve lived in a time when the tribe story-teller was a mystic who sang his tales before the campfire.

Sometimes it seems to me as if all of our imaginations might be getting weaker, or maybe they’re just full of sludge. Maybe we’re so visually assaulted with images of violence and horror that language seems to be an insufficient stimulant. Our films use special effects that try to supplant our imaginations, and yet the computer graphics can rarely outdo our nightmares. I think the inner sludge needs a good stirring up occasionally, but maybe mere words won't whisk well (bad alliteration).

I had a close friend and collaborator who passed away a few years ago. He once wrote a song about a guy who hunted alien beasts in outer space called “Star Trapper”. It’s an amazing song, full of larger than life imagery and sound track potential. He wrote another one about the Algonquin Indians’ mythological spirit-possessor, the Wendigo. We used to sing it together and I always felt like we might accidentally call the Wendigo into our presence if we did it with just the right amount of mojo. That’s the power and fun of a freshly stirred imagination.

Losing my friend was tough. Losing Marty and the other story tellers of my childhood was like losing collaborators in my land of enchantment. I don’t think I’ve ever really replaced them.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt


Diane Diekman said...

It's always great to hear about someone who remembers and appreciates Marty Robbins. Thanks for keeping his music and memory alive. I'm currently writing his biography. He could see movies in his mind and turn them into publishable songs. It sounds like you have that knack.

Pat said...

I remember loving "El Paso" as a kid. That was one touching cowboy love song! You're absolutely right about the imagery conjured. Thanks for the reminder.

Jim Sotzing said...

Thanks Craig. You paint such vivid word pictures. Maybe you should write a book, an autobiography or a semi-fictionalized account of a songwriters life.

chromehead said...

Thanks Jim, working on it.

Tim McMullen said...

What a wonderful and nostalgic reminiscence. We have gotten several of these lately, and they are just marvelous.

Of course, you did not mean your list to be exhaustive, but "Running Bear" (which always conjured up a humorous picture for a literate and punny kid), "Wolverton Mountain," and Hank Snow's version of Red Foley's "Old Doc Brown," all jump to mind as great story songs.

As you point out Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins sort of vied for top spot, but Marty's "El Paso," pretty much made him the king of the larger than life melodramatic song. Despite a fine, and more "popular" version of "Singing the Blues" by Guy Mitchell, nobody can touch Marty Robbins on that sultry piece of country suave. Plus, he was the first to record a Gordon Lightfoot song ("Ribbon of Darkness") and boost "Big Gord" (the punny kid always laughed at that nickname on one of Lighfoot's early albums, too) into the spotlight. And "A White Sport Coat...." Marty Robbins was one of the true greats.

The following is a similar reminiscence from my collection, Aged Fifty Years: A Life in Song. It's the intro to the chapter entitled, "Sorry I Haven't Written Lately."

"I have always been a sucker for a song. One of my unfinished pieces observes:
Song after song sings a sorry refrain—
Tears in my eyes from some other fool’s pain.

"I have a very vivid childhood memory of just such an impact. Occasionally, my parents would pack up the three of us boys and haul us to the Sundown Drive-in, just a few blocks from our house. It was a great treat for all of us: the speaker hung on the car window; the colossal screen jutting into the sky; the trip to the snackbar for popcorn and drinks or to the playground nestled under the screen; all three of us in our pajamas, rotating from the front to the backseat; the cartoons and shorts before the feature; and the peculiar familial isolation of cars full of people sharing the movie experience together alone.
"This particular night, I was reclining on the back seat of our Buick; Tucker, Kevin and my parents were all in the front seat when 'The Wayward Wind' by Gogi Grant came on the little speaker. Though I had heard the song before, I had never listened to the words. Lying there alone, looking out at the dusky sky, I suddenly heard every word and felt the mournful, wistful pain the woman felt, and I was choked up, then moved to tears by the story-telling in this simple 'pop' song.
"I still occasionally sing for my students, and I suppose I should be embarrassed by my being so easily moved by a story or a song, but I’m not. When I sing 'Old Shep' by Red Foley; 'Sully’s Pail' by Dick Giddons; 'Chief Joseph' by Danny O’Keefe; 'Deportee' by Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman, 'Child’s Song' by Murray McLauchlan; or even my own song, 'Michael,' I am invariably choked up. The sight of tears welling up or streaming down their teacher’s face is probably a very peculiar experience for most students (probably pretty silly way back when I was performing in clubs, too), but I don’t mind. Real feeling, even if vicarious, is what the human experience is about.

Sorry for being so long winded again, but I really love your personal anecdotes, and this one of mine just struck me as hitting on much of what you said here and elsewhere: to paraphrase, as often as possible, music's goal is to touch the soul.

Thanks for doing that with both your music and your prose.

Becca Bessinger said...

what a wonderful little glimpse into your life growing up and where some of your inspiration comes from. funny how you and i come from two different musical worlds and yet (thankfully) we connect musically. the song i'll always remember sparking my imagination as a young girl is the b52s "mesopotamia." i used to sit around the radio waiting for them to play it again (which they didn't do often) zany bunch, those b52s, but what imaginations!

Jim Sotzing said...

Hope to see you again this weekend at Plymouth, VT.