You Had to Be There

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Time reference: It’s late Friday night while I’m writing this and the years are swirling around inside my head right now. I’m in my study in my dad’s old easy chair, where I often sit at night to write, and it is quiet this late. My brother and sister-in-law are battening down in their house south of Houston as Hurricane Harvey approaches; my sister is with our mom in Virginia Beach as all sorts of changes keep forcing new ways of thinking.

A few weeks past I found an old cassette tape I forgot I had. You see, thirty-five years ago I got through college (emotionally) with the help of my best friend—an old 12 string Takamine guitar. I played in my dorm. I played at a nursing home, at a few local pubs, and in the campus café where once every two months or so the musicians on campus would gather and play for a packed house. As those few, short years passed it became more and more fun, and of all the activities I did during those four years, those coffeehouses with fellow musicians were easily some of the most memorable. The stories I have from those gigs could fill a hundred pages and just thinking of a few of them while sitting here gives me goose bumps and makes me all at once feel very young, ready for the world, and very old and tired. That was so long ago yet I can hear every note, the sound of the crowd, the lights above the stage, the odd backdrop of an Olympic size swimming pool behind the curtains and glass, and some anecdotes I could never properly capture in a blog. For me, it is the ultimate “you had to be there” situation.

A lot of musicians came and went those years but one in particular stood out; Mike was a resident director who played guitar. We played a lot of music together. He and I once drove to Rochester to buy a piano and bring it back in a van, and we talked the entire time, stopping at Letchworth State Park to rest and watch the waterfalls and talk about dreams and hopes and fears. We stood at the scenic overview and talked about music and the passing of time. We talked about Walt Whitman and Thoreau. On another occasion we went to an International Coffeehouse competition. Out of a hundred or so participants Mike and I both made the final five and he won. What a time that was. After my junior year he took a new job somewhere else, but senior year the college had him back to perform a coffeehouse by himself. He was a mixture of James Taylor and Paul Simon. The café filled to capacity again and he played. The night was all Mike and a room filled with friends who we knew we would know the rest of our lives. Of course, that wasn’t the case. A few of us remained close, a few others I’ve been back in touch with and it has enriched my life with the only thing that matters in the end, the love of friends. Still, I don’t know what happened to Mike.

But I found this tape of that night at the café when he returned to campus, and I burned a cd from it, and now I’m sitting here in my study in my dad’s old easy chair listening to where I was and who I was thirty-five years ago.

Does anyone pull out the wedding video twenty years later and reminisce? Does anyone peruse old tapes of childhood birthdays? Perhaps. I generally don’t. I watched a video of Michael when he was five riding his bike around the property yelling gleeful things, while on the porch you can see my dad, my uncle and aunt, all laughing and talking with the energy of the ages. Quickly I was sorry I pulled the tapes out—maybe my memory is still sharp enough to hear their voices without any aid, or maybe I’m too melancholic to drown in the sentiment of “back then.” I like looking ahead, I really do.

But sometimes it is okay to look back carefully, because as Jackson Browne depressingly points out, “There’s still something there for me.” It can’t be a bad thing to get a glimpse of the good parts of the past.

At the café all those years ago, I know I sat next to my friends Maria and Jennifer, and Sean and Debbie were at a table on the other side of the stage. The entire resident staff was there with a case of beer. I recognize a lot of the voices on the tape from the crowd as they called out. It is odd to find proof of a different version of myself. Photographs are too static, and video is too animated and distracting as we comment on clothes or hairstyles or the lack of lines on our faces. But just audio, an old tape on which my voice is the same as it is now, is like standing outside of twenty-two again and overhearing who I thought I was. Do people that young today still dream like that? As a professor I have stared at twenty-two for twenty-eight years now and I don’t see the spark and raw ambition I remember when I was young. Maybe, but a lot of what we did back then was the result of a rare combination of passion and lack of distraction. For the most part technology was not in our lives so we were more a part of each others’. Or maybe it’s Mike’s choice of songs, or maybe it is just this easy chair, but something was different then; we actually believed in the craziest part of ourselves.

I am closer now to ninety-years-old than I am to that night.

Most of what he played was original, but one song, playing right now, is a Peter Yarrow song, and in the refrain Mike sings “Must have been the wrong rainbow, because I don’t see any pot of gold. All I see is a man too old to start again.”

Okay, so tonight this can go two ways: I can drown in the used-to-be’s of that energy in our innocent youth. Or I can get up tomorrow and smile and know parts of who I was back then are still here, a bit more weathered and a little more tired, but here just the same.

I wasn’t very good. Oh my God we made so many mistakes. But what I was excellent at back then was not being afraid to embarrass myself in pursuit of a passion. We laid it all out there for better or worse, mostly worse, and said, “This is who I am and what I’m feeling right now.” I was so anxious, every single time. So was Mike. But we kept doing it because that comes with the territory. If you’re going to be in the arts, whether music or writing, visual arts or the art of being human, you have to step in your own direction despite the urge of those around you to push you back in line. So we played and we weren’t afraid of making mistakes.

And people kept showing up.

I suppose that even at twenty-two I was simply more terrified of falling into a rut, following anyone into anything. I was going to be the Greater Fool, the “other” one, the guy who wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself in an effort to pursue a dream. I guess I got distracted after all. It is good to listen to then and remember me.

So now I am sitting here in my late father’s easy chair wondering how my mother is doing with so many changes and how my brother is doing with the weather down near Galveston. I’m thinking about my adult son and the miles he has already logged in pursuit of his own dreams. He is older now than I am in this tape I’m listening to. Yet I am as far from sad or melancholy as can be. Because I’m still here, I’m still doing coffeehouses but instead of music I’m telling stories in which I tend to write things which say, “This is who I am and what I’m feeling right now.” It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. It might be nearly four decades later, but I’m still embarrassing myself in pursuit of an art, which is, for any artist, a way of exposing the soul. Back then I wanted anyone to listen. Now, I write for myself, and if an audience finds something worthy in the words, that’s a bonus. I’m just doing what my soul tells me to do, just like I did at twenty-two.

As Whitman pointed out: “The powerful play goes on and you might contribute a verse.”

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