I was born in 1952 in Cincinnati, Ohio. By 1966, I had never heard classical music. But I knew all the rock songs and their lyrics. Every Saturday, I rode my monster-sized bike (that I had taken a ballpeen hammer to for effect) the couple of miles to the Newmark Melody in Swifton Shopping Center to get the Top-40 list for WSAI AM radio. As a buzzhead 14 year-old kid with coke bottle glasses, Top-40 music was what I knew, and I knew it well.
As a Freshman in high school, I gravitated to the margins, hanging with the poets, standing in the marble hallways after hours, beating weeds with the goateed dude from Cleveland, Jau Billera, who later offed himself, as a bunch of that Cleveland group seems to have done. I was malleable putty in the hands of my teachers, Marionist Brothers steeped in the liberation theology end of things. There were grape boycotts, silk-screening revolutionary slogans on t-shirts, and eating soup with nuns who wore plain dress in their five-story walk-up tenement apartments in Over-the-Rhine.
I had a small Zenith hi-fi record player. The family had a big old box looking radio. But I also had my 9-volt AM transistor radio the size of pack of cigarettes. I fell asleep every night with that radio turned on, securely stashed under my pillow. I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s song 7 O’clock News that morphed from the singing of Silent Night to the newscast of the day. I tried to adjust the dial, thinking something was wrong as the transition in the piece began to tell about the death of Lenny Bruce. That was Magic.
But I had never heard classical music, nor did I know anyone who had until my Freshman year of high school. That year I took the required course in music appreciation taught by the band director Mr. Frank Dowd. The class was raucous and I have no recollection of what went on except Mr. Dowd screaming for the class of some thirty or so testosterone soaked adolescents to shut-up. Our response was exceptionally defiant and cool in our contempt for whatever he was trying to teach.
On a day like most any other during my Freshman year we got hauled down to gym for an assembly. We were going to listen to the pianist from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra play something. The piano was set up on risers in the center of the basketball court of the gym flanked by rows of worn wooden chairs. I sat about ten rows back, slightly to the left of the piano. The piece he played was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The pianist gave an introduction suggesting that we imagine ourselves walking through an art museum and stopping at different paintings along the way. I had never been to an art museum.
But, I had walked the streets of my blue collar industrial hometown with my transistor radio in my ear, listening to the rhythm and sounds of the city. I could walk down the Pike with all of the stores, imagining what was inside that I did not have money to buy. I could study the store front windows of the Kresgee’s Five and Dime, Anna’s coffee shop, to the big box GM plant, stroll through Victory Park to the residential streets where I fantasized about the exciting lives behind the doors.
But on that day in 1966, the pianist played. I was transfixed. The promenade provided the transition between the settings. The piece captured my brooding teenage depression, the feeling of liberation I had come to know with alcohol. The piano spoke of frivolity to the abyss of crossing through the Great Gate of Kiev – all tied together by that promenade, the transition, the thread of the fabric, the Magic.
The piece ended. The pianist stood and bowed, we all applauded. I am certain I applauded, but mostly I was transformed.
After school that day I rode my bike to Marlboro Books and Music, a burgeoning head-shop that I thought was my best shot at finding the Magical piece of music on vinyl. No luck. The long-haired freak that ran the place instead sold me a three-record set of Daniel Barenboim doing a bunch of Beethoven’s sonatas, including Moonlight and Pathetique.
During my career as a university professor, generally at some point during the semester, it came up that I had a 0.7 GPA during my first try at college in the 70s, though I ended up with a PhD and a 4.0; Today, I do not know an adagio from an allegro, from a sonata or a Pissarro from a Cezanne, but I can pick out a Carroll Cloar at 50 paces; I have never read a Shakespeare play, but the best theater I ever saw was a production of Julius Caesar with an all woman cast; or that I have never read anything by Plato, but I might someday. There is a bit of a risk in telling those truths. The well-trained and privileged students steeped in the Western Arts often became dismissive of my ability to lead a graduate seminar. I didn’t care. What I considered more important was to validate the student in the class who came from a similar place as me to live into their passion. Those who live at the top of the hill by circumstances alone will remain at the top. But the students who start at the bottom must be sparked into the process of ascent, to hear their Mussorgsky . . .
. . . to start the process . . . which leads me to an experience of mine over a decade ago. This telling begins with an excerpt from my journal I wrote while sitting on a park bench around noontime in Jackson Square in New Orleans, the most Magical city on earth. Here it is:
I rode some 60 + miles yesterday along the Longleaf Trace out of Hattiesburg. This was to be a retreat, but it does not really feel to be so much of that. I am not certain what it is I am supposed to think about. I seem to be in an angst of sorts, on job and life. Both are what I am driving toward, but neither is terribly right at this time, though both are where I need to be.
What do these have in common from my high school times that I still remember:
- “Ecstatic static” – from a Ferlinghetti poem.
- “I only wanted to live in accord with the promptings that came from my true self – why was that so very difficult” – from Herman Hesse’s epigraph to Demian.
- “I inhabited the wake of a long wave” – the line of poetry from W.S. Merwin.
A wave, static, true self, are all dynamic, things that cannot be grasped and held in the hand. They cannot be quantified or measured by anything that is meaningful to me. They are all process. They are always changing, always in motion.
I am left with the understanding that I will be perpetually in process, in riding the wave. I will always be in transition. Is that sort of my lot in life? And that if I get the understanding that life is not getting some place, and putting down stakes, but always toward something – not happiness, but meaning – then that process cannot be totally smooth or without anxiety or stress, or in ease.
It seems there can be refuge, respites, but I need to continue to get out of self. There is the listening to classical music or Ravel, that brings some tremendous solace. How does Pictures at an Exhibition link the past with the present with the future. Why was I so obsessed with that music so long ago and till today? The process of going through the museum. It is all process. Perhaps that is why I find the contradiction with some life circumstances – they mess with the fun of the process, being so goal oriented, and me being so process oriented. That is where some conflict can arise. That the process in all forms is a good thing. To have enjoyed that process, and had meaning in that process. That the idea of leaving the place better that you found it is good enough.
At this point, Jackson Square was filling with folks for lunch time. Distracting. I decided to move my operation to the inside of St. Louis Cathedral to continue writing. The church always has unoffensive canned Gregorian Chant playing. I walked into the church and made my way toward a central pew – away from the tourists in the back and front. I heard the strains of an organ . . . familiar . . . what is it . . . oh man, it’s Pictures at an Exhibition . . . I had never heard that on an organ before! Where was the canned Gregorian Chant?
One bit of wisdom I have gotten in life is that when the Gods speak, one needs to sit down, shut-up and listen – which is exactly what I did.