Friday, August 31, 2012

Surf's Up

The month of September is at my doorstep, but the summer is still trying to suck every last drop of life blood out of us, like a crazed vampire who doesn't know when to stop draining its victim.  Almost imperceptibly, the great wheel of the seasons is turning with tantalizing slowness, and the sun continues its languid, snail-like journey towards the south part of the sky.  I leave my weekly aerobics class at approximately the same time, 6:50pm, and I can tell it's getting a tiny little bit darker each time.  Used to be I would walk out of the gym into the bright sunlight of an early evening, but now the sun is hovering just above the western horizon, sinking a little more each day.  The equinox is about three weeks away, and before long I will exit the gym to a sky devoid of sunlight..

I so love autumn because it has always been a time of reflection and contemplation, a time to consider what has been done so far this year, and plan for the long cold winter nights.  Everything seems richer and more colorful; the air will soon carry a touch of chilliness in the morning, and there will be a fragrance that speaks of the harvest and coming-of-age, of promises fulfilled and lessons learned.  The nighttime sky, always an indication of things to come, shows the Scorpion slinking low across the south toward the faintly glowing western horizon, and gallant, regal Pegasus, the celestial flying horse, making a powerful leap into the eastern sky, taking its rightful place of honor in the starry firmament.

In the coming months, the Scorpion will disappear in the west just as Orion the Hunter throws his leg up over the eastern mountains and hoists himself sideways into the sky, his faithful dog beside him and Lepus the celestial rabbit underneath him.  The Scorpion and Orion are locked in a death pursuit, each chasing the other but never catching up.  Scorpion wants to sting Orion with its glittering tail, and Orion wants to kill Scorpion with his club.  They've been doing this for billions of years and will probably continue for billions more. Such is their fate, both of them hopelessly joined in titanic struggle that will never be resolved.  Orion will rise higher in the southern sky until around the winter solstice, when Orion will take his rightful place as Lord of the Sky, glistening in the cold, deep winter night, Master of Heaven and Earth, surveying his kingdom.  The Rabbit will still be underneath him, right above Columba the Dove.  And very late at night, right around the winter solstice, you will spot the star Canopus, the harbinger of spring, skimming barely above the southern deserts and wildly twinkling like an over-caffeinated, multicolored strobe light.

I have been listening to a lot of music from the 1960s recently.  XM satellite radio in my vehicle, along with the music channels on DirecTV, serves up an endless stream of great tunes from that amazing decade.  Some of the music still sounds incredibly fresh and new, as if recorded just last week.  The music and the vocal harmonies of a lot of the groups were startlingly complex and intricate.  Looking back over four decades, I have a new appreciation for the achievements of bands like The Mamas and The Papas, Spanky and Our Gang and the glorious "Jersey Boy" pop of the Four Seasons.  Even shallow contrivances like The Cowsills, a musical family whose members ranged from youngsters barely out of the toddler stage to the surprising youthful and hip (for the 60s) mother, recorded an amazing song called "The Rain The Park and Other Things."  The Cowsills were a manufactured pop group, a precursor to the ubiquitous "boy bands" of the 80s and 90s, and their short-lived success degenerated into a series of acrimonious lawsuits which ended up tearing the family apart.  Besides the reign of brash, revolutionary groups like The Beatles and the Jefferson Airplane, the 60s also saw the dawning of the singer-songwriter era with geniuses like Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, whose brilliance would continue into the new millennium. 

Sure, there was a lot of crap music from that era, something that is inescapable no matter which decade you examine.  The "bubblegum" music craze was particularly obnoxious, and unabashedly phony studio groups like "The Archies" and "The 1910 Fruitgum Company" sold millions of annoying records.  Reflecting the cultural war at the time, a lot of people snapped up faux-patriotic potboilers like "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by SSgt. Barry Sadler (1966) - and on the other end - whiny, overwrought polemics like "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire (1965).  But all that was counterbalanced by Motown, the early Beatles, and the whole San Francisco psychedelic era, and those are the musical genres with real creativity, and real staying power.

Also central to the 60s sound were the Beach Boys, whose music and sophisticated vocal arrangements are still universally regarded as the best of the best.  Brian Wilson's perfectly crafted masterpieces such as "Good Vibrations," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and the shimmering, transcendent "Surf's Up" are unforgettable.  The Boys, along with lesser lights such as Jan and Dean, created the entire California youth scene, an eternal playground full of fast cars, surfing and beautiful girls in bikinis frolicking on a golden beach in an endless summer (recently given a garish, playfully hallucinogenic update by Katy Perry in her "California Gurls" video).  As someone just entering their teenage years, I was completely captivated by this perfect vision of a happy, carefree world drenched in lemon-yellow sunlight where you didn't have to work, and the biggest problem you had to worry about was catching the perfect wave.  Growing up as I did in a gritty steel-mill town near Pittsburgh, life could get oppressively dull and dreary.  The nearest body of water was the dirty Allegheny river which absent-mindedly meandered nearby, definitely not conducive to surfing.  The "beach" (derisively called the "Polish Riviera") consisted of a tiny strip of land on the other side of the river made up of smooth, round river rock, which was incredibly uncomfortable to walk or lay on.  Wintertime could be long, harsh and very depressing, often not seeing the sun for two weeks at a time, the trees devoid of green leaves, and the world locked in a frigid grip of icy, frozen ground and heavy, leaden skies.  But gods help me, that was my home, and I loved it.  Truth be told, sometimes I miss those incredibly dismal, cheerless winter days.

When conditions outside become difficult or unpleasant, either emotionally or because of the weather, the natural urge is to turn inward for solace.  Whether it's 10 or 110 degrees outside, it's the same thing, two sides of the same coin.  Memories are important stepping-stones back to a world with which you are intimately familiar, and that can be a very comforting thing.  It's endlessly fascinating to me how a song or a piece of music can evoke such rich, detailed memories of who you were and what you were doing when you first heard it.  I can remember all the words to songs I have not heard in 40 years, yet I can't remember what I did last week.  Funny how such seemingly trivial things make such an enormous impression on you.  Memories are funny, precious and remarkable milestones on the journey of your life.

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