Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pulling into Nazareth (On "Magic Moments")

And then it happened
It took me by surprise
I knew that you felt it too
By the look in your eyes*
     I call ‘em “magic moments” (MMs). That’s a trite phrase, I suppose, but when I talk about them, which is almost never, that’s the phrase I use.
     I just looked up the word “magic.” The adjective can refer to “a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, esp. in a way that gives delight.”** Well, that’s pretty much what I have in mind.
     I’ve always had MMs—though maybe not as often as I do nowadays. I love ‘em, of course, though I tend to keep them to myself. (For the purposes of this essay, I’ll leave aside the MMs of romance. They seem to require special treatment.)

My sister and me, Vancouver, B.C., c. 1959
     FLEETING MEMORIES OF CHILDHOOD. Some of my MMs seem to be randomly-occurring, tenuous memories of moments from childhood. When they occur, it is as if I have been transported back to, say, 1962, sitting in my mother’s car (the passenger seat, next to mom) as she drives my sister to summer school. The school building is in the country, away from the city, and it is old, large, and intriguing (and I never go inside). Something lovely plays on the radio in that old car—a 1950 Buick? I am transfixed, there, in 1962. I want this moment to last.
     Was the experience, fifty years ago, “magical”? Or is it magical only now, when experienced anew, by this elderly fellow? I suspect that the original moment was some kind of magical, though that magic is now largely lost. And the memory, now, I suspect, owes at least some if its “magic” to a yearning for that moment and world in 1962—something lost or nearly so.

     NOT A SCENE, BUT A WORLD. Some magic moments concern ignorance and imagination, things in great supply among children. As I recall, as a child, I would encounter a scene—something described in a book or story or portrayed on a movie or TV screen—and my mind would somehow fill in the vast undescribed and undetermined of the scene’s “world” with a kind of vague, largely unspecified wonderfulness. The result: a Wonderful World. And a place beyond reach, probably.
     When I was very young, scenes of the Old West could be like that—not always, but sometimes, when the right image or sound or even smell entered my consciousness.
     It’s 1959 and I’m living with my family on a quiet street in Vancouver, BC (see photo above). No doubt, it’s raining. My folks have bought a plastic model of a Conestoga wagon. It sits there in the corner of the living room, on an end table near a couch. I stare at it and imagine a vaguely wonderful world, where the sun always shines and all things are exotic and interesting. That world is somehow gone, and that is sad and beautiful.
     People who chronically experience such thrall are sometimes called “romantics.” Romantics, of course, are people with “romantic” ideas:

romantic, adj.:
  • inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love
  • of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality**
     I knew nothing about the excitement of love in 1959 (I was four years old). But, otherwise, “excitement” and “mystery” are on the money. Idealized? Well, yes. That Wonderful World was surely better than the one I was in. 

     ONE SUCH WORLD, IN A BOOK. I recall that, as a young school child, I was introduced, at some point, to a richly illustrated reader about a small group of boys and girls, living in the country, a fecund place with trails and forests and hills. Looking at those pages, my imagination was wildly actuated, and I was transported to the world (it seemed) of that book. I now remember virtually nothing about that reader, and the world, but I do remember being utterly transfixed by its illustrations. I know I wanted to be in that world, though I understood, too, that it was a fantasy.
     Once in a while, I’ll see an illustration—typically, in an old children’s book—that reminds me of the old images and world of that book. My senses, or quasi-senses, are piqued; it is as though I hear the faint plucking on the strings of some distant, harp. I cannot quite hear the sound, but I feel the plucking. I try to find it, to focus upon it, the sound, in my mind. But the best I can do is maintain that faint plucking of unheard sounds. It dies away. It's gone.

     A WORLD THOUGHT, NOT SENSED. When I was young, the “worlds” of such moments could be “big”—such as the “Old West.” More often, however, they were relatively circumscribed: the smallish world of the imagined adventures of Daniel Boone (the wilderness of Kentucky) or, say, the valley of the farm of Lucas McCain (of the “Rifleman” TV series). The magic world could be a small thing.
     How odd it is to feel a world that one cannot quite sense, even with sense memories. One has more an idea of it. —The idea of a sensory world, sans any image or sound or feeling, like a photograph that is blank yet that demands that one listen intently to it, or a sound that one cannot help but stare at with eyes wide open. Strange, complex phantom-experiences. Dream-like, I suppose. And yet, the imagined world is somehow just a world, that is, in time and space to be lived in as one does every day.

     THAT "NEIGHBORHOOD" FEELING. I want to say that I stopped thinking about such worlds a long time ago.
     On the other hand, I love old artifacts and buildings. Always have. I even bought one once—a small, two-story house built in 1903, in a neighborhood in Old Towne Orange. Living in that house, I would often experience a kind of thrill—a magic moment—of a special world, somehow in the past, but also in the present. I later grew conscious of a more definite recurring "moment" that would punctuate my days: a special neighborhood feeling—a special sense of the quiet little community of people there, quietly living beyond those walls, somehow tied to these old homes with their old bricks, and narrow slats, and plumbing, and outmoded designs. To live there, it seemed, was to participate in an older way of life, something largely lost. My neighborhood feeling was slightly Tom Sawyerish and a more than a little Henry Aldrichish. 
     I moved out of that house fifteen years ago, but I recently had occasion to walk past it. It was night; I walked down Orange street, past my house, down the block; I then turned the corner, and then another corner.
     A cat followed. I called to it—and then I had the moment, a faint thing. It was that old “neighborhood” feeling, carried, it seemed, by Mr. Cat, with his fine neighborhood ways, who somehow stopped following. I looked for him. I tried to hang on to the magic, but it grew more faint. No cat.

       THE UNDYING DEEP MAGIC OF "THE WEIGHT." Songs can bring magic. I recall seeing the film “Easy Rider” as a teenager. At one point, the biker duo—"Captain America" and Billy—ride across vast landscapes accompanied by “The Weight,” the song by Bob Dylan’s backing band (eventually named simply The Band). I’m not sure, but I do believe that that song was magical to me from that moment on.
     Once again, in the song, we're in rural America, if not the Wild West, in a town called “Nazareth.”*** The singer enters the town—perhaps by car (he "pulls in")—with a mission (we eventually learn), but he runs into difficulty:
I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin' about half past dead
I just need to find a place where I can lay my head
"Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook my hand, "No", was all he said

Take a load off Annie
Take a load for free
Take a load off Annie
And you put the load right on me
I picked up my bag and I went lookin' for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side
And I said, "Hey, Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown"
And she said, "Well, I gotta go, but my friend can stick around" 
Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say
'Cause just ol' Luke and Luke's waitin' on the Judgment Day
"Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?"
He said, "Do me a favor, son, woncha stay an' keep Anna Lee company?" 
Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog
He said, "I will fix your rack[?], if you'll take Jack, my dog"
I said, "Wait a minute, Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man"
He said, "That's okay, boy, won't you feed him when you can?" 
Catch a Cannonball, now, to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time
To get back to Miss Annie, you know she's the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone 
     I’m not sure how much of the scene painted by these lyrics was clear to me when the song first did its magic more than forty years ago (in those days, I never bothered to work out lyrics, preferring to respond to the aural/lyrical gestalt). I think I understood only vaguely what was going on. But the setting—an older and rural America with people named “Anna Lee” and “Crazy Chester” and “Luke”—was clear enough. So was the mission revealed at the end.
     Through the years, listening to, and loving, this song, I’m not sure I ever wanted really to be in Nazareth. I suppose I placed the town in some vaguely rural/small-town America, which is in many ways attractive to me, but I always understood the bleakness of the song's scene and the sense of frustration of the singer.
     Still, I’m sure I’ve always felt the usual MM longing when this song’s magic would hit me. Carried into this song’s special world, I want something. But what? (Or I've got something, and I seek to keep it, knowing it will slip away.) The place—Nazareth—is intriguing, and yet there’s trouble here. The singer is less-than-well-to-do, it seems, and he’s not having much luck in this odd town. A young woman—Annie—has sent her friend, the singer, with her regards (only that?) to friends in Nazareth. Why did she send the singer and not go herself? The singer knows at least one person in town—Carmen, who saddles him with "the devil"—but he seems like a stranger anyway, alone and unsettled and perhaps puzzled. And why the suggestion of violence in his encounter with Chester?
     Why does this man's difficulty doing a friend a favor have such resonance? His endeavor is vaguely attractive, traveling to this town in the night, there to leave his regards for a friend. His reactions to his odd encounters with Carmen and Chester and Luke are our reactions, of course: we understand his frustration, if not the particulars of his mission. We are told almost nothing about the town of "Nazareth." The song's names and allusions suggest the Bible Belt: rural, small town America, like the areas The Band often played in before and during their association with Dylan.
     At the song's end, the singer, perhaps dejected, tells us it's time to leave, and he catches a train back—to Annie, who remains a mystery.
     What's it all mean? Not sure. But the bare story, with its hints at tasks and promises and frustrations and fidelity, is powerfully compelling nevertheless. Like so much magic, it seems to depend on the vast undefined space that, somehow, is readily filled with our vague and unlocated stuff of wonderfulness. This magic is like a song, faintly heard, that is beautiful for as long as we can't quite grasp its melody and harmonies though we sense their lovely presence, somehow, in our mind's imaginings.

     * "This Magic Moment," by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, 1960. See here and here and here.
     ** All definitions from my Mac's dictionary
     *** Nazareth (Pennsylvania) is, among other things, the home of Martin Guitars. The only American member of the Band is its singer, Levon Helm, who hailed from Arkansas.
     **** By Robbie Robertson of the Band, 1968. See here.

The Band: four Canadians and an older guy, from Arkansas