On a snowy morning, a few weeks before my sixty-first birthday, I walk across the campus of the college where I teach. The students aren’t back from Christmas vacation and the place has an abandoned feeling, like a ghost ship, the Marie Celeste, sailing along without passengers or crew. I pass empty parking lots and sidewalks, empty bookshop and post office, everything empty as the branches of the trees, as the muddy fields of surrounding farms, vacancy and absence everywhere. And that is when I am ambushed, mugged, astonished by a song that comes to me from God knows where, out of the sky, out of the past, out of the ground beneath my feet or some fissure in the membrane that divides then and now. Even though there is no one around to hear me – perhaps because of that – I am humming, then I am singing “True Love Ways,” a small gem of a song recorded by Buddy Holly shortly before his death in a plane crash more than forty years ago.
“True Love Ways” is a simple, slow lyric with none of Holly’s trademarks, the rockabilly drive, the falsetto, the stuttering delivery. And it’s by no means perfect; there is a dopey saxophone bridge that makes me wince. Still, “True Love Ways” is a quiet declaration of faith and love, faith in love, a last message from a musician who died young, a long time ago, who’s been dead many years longer than he lived. The thought of him – the image of that doomed Texan with the heavy, horn-rimmed glasses – always moved me. Buddy Holly was over my shoulder when I wrote Eddie and the Cruisers twenty years ago; its themes were early magic and sudden loss. And now, on this wintry morning, he visits me again, not done with me yet.
“The day the music died,” Don McLean called it: Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper down in a cornfield outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, a snowy field, like the world I walk though now. Is that why the song found me? Or is it that I can see, from where I’m now standing, the place where I discovered that song? I came to Kenyon in 1960, about two years after Buddy Holly died and, like ninety-percent of Kenyon’s all-male student body, pledged to join a fraternity. It lasted about a week, until I realized it wasn’t for me. But on the night before I was gone, I sat downstairs in the fraternity lounge, a scuffed-up, ill-used place, pulling an all-nighter and I noticed a record-player – that’s what it was called – a turn-table and a speaker and just one record, which was “True Love Ways.” What happened in the wee hours of that long-ago night was one of those times when you’re so captured by a song that you play it over and over, not a couple of times, but a couple of dozen and with every playing you go deeper into it, it travels deeper into you. And so it happens, the song that finds a sixtyish writer in residence is the song that discovered a kid who was lonely in college, wondering about what he was doing there and whether he’d stay and who, a year later would apply for transfer to another, better-known school – Yale – and when the acceptance came, along with scholarship aid, decided after all to stay on the Ohio hilltop where he’d heard “True Love Ways.”
I don’t know why the song found me, back then, or why it returns on this particular morning, though I can speculate about how the weather, the landscape, the empty campus conduce to memory. But I’m sure of one thing: the song found me, I didn’t find it. In a moment of random magic it came back to me, an oldie but goodie, a touch from the past. It’s an odd linkage and it’s happened before, not always and not often, but often enough. People and places in my life are connected to – until just recently, I’d have said embedded with – songs that don’t go away Since many songs are love songs, it comes as no surprise that people I’ve loved, a little while or longer, have songs attached to them. A song by Bobby Vee, a minor singer, a Holly imitator – “I’m Like a Rubber Ball, I Come Bouncing Back to You” – recalls a girl I dated, on and off, all through high school. Thomas Wayne’s one hit wonder – “Tragedy” – brings back a pleasant twinge of pain. And something by a man named Gordon Keith called “I’ll Try to Please You” summons up a woman, the woman who broke my heart when I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. I might be the only person who brought that record – three of them, in fact, three 45 r.p.m.’s. I was determined not to lose that song, even though I lost the woman. These days, I don’t own a record player – a turntable, that is – but those records are in the house, packed away someplace and I would feel awful, it would be like a little bit of death, if they weren’t around. And now, if you want to know which song is my wife’s, I would say none. Or many. Elton John’s haunting “Blue Eyes” might be it, enough though my wife’s eyes are definitely brown. Songs connect us to our past and my wife is past and present. The perfect song is out there, I’m sure, I just haven’t decided yet. The hits just keep on coming.
More than people, places come trailing songs – or are announced by them. It goes both ways , the song brings back the place or the place brings back a song. Consider a certain song – it still gets played a lot – that, whenever I hear it, carries me back to the south side of Chicago and the Regal Theater, where the opening act at a rhythm-and-blues road show was a group I’d never heard of, four gents in dark suits who looked like they had no business in front of a restless and noisy mid-afternoon crowd. Their jazzy version of “Teahouse In Old Chinatown” went nowhere fast and their next offering failed to impress. This wasn’t a patient audience. But then – I still get goosebumps when I think about it – a surge of music came out of the Red Sanders Orchestra and it was joined by something else that I’ve heard a thousand times since – woo-woo-woo – woo-woo ooh ooh, roughly – and it was a miracle at 47th and South Park, the Regal Theater lifting off the ground, the guys in leather coats and stingy-brim hats, the woman in the white uniforms of nurses, maids, waitresses, and me – all of us levitated by The Four Tops’ “Baby, I Need Your Loving.” When I hear that song, I’m back there and back there is now. Lives change, love drifts, addresses change, but the music hangs around and keeps you whole. There was a quonset hut I stayed in from time to time on the Pacific Island of Palau in the late sixties, Peace Corps days. A girl kept playing a Jimi Hendrix album so that his sinister “Hey Joe,” surrounds me with greenhouse tropic smells, hot heavy air, night rolling in, rain drumming on the roof, just as “Come On Baby Light My Fire” – Jose Feliciano’s slow version, not Jim Morrison’s – returns me to the island of Saipan, sweating out a hangover morning in a rotting wooden shack, conspiring to borrow someone’s car – Kennedy’s children, my Peace Corps generation, were supposed to stay on foot – so I could close a few bars after dark. And have I mentioned that on those rare occasions I hear Pete Wingfield’s sneaky, dirty-minded “Eighteen, With A Bullet” I’m back on Saipan again because that’s what Casey Kasem was playing on Armed Forces Radio when my wife and I parked under a row of soft-needled pines before swimming among rusted breakwaters and sunken barges left over from World War II at a place called Charlie Dock? Or how I was out west, jogging on a side road off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and there were some carpenters – young guys, sun-tanned California pagans – hammering a deck onto a house and all singing along with the radio, which was playing The Skyliners’ magnificent “This I Swear.” Do you think that just happened by accident? One more, please. I used to drink at a long-since closed bar/brothel called The Spider’s Web on del Pilar Street in Manila. When the theme from Flashdance, Irene Cara’s “What A Feeling” or Paul Young’s “Everytime You Go Away” came out of the jukebox, the hostesses up and down the bar would pick up the chorus and it was sing-along-time in the red light district, because whatever happened, they still believed the lyrics of the popular songs. And so do I. Still.
The list goes on. Life adds to it, even as the songs themselves enrich life. What’s important is that the songs come to me, as they wish. I don’t arise, intending to remember a song. I can’t plan what I’ll recall. I’m at the mercy of something I don’t understand, just a receiver. And though it’s tempting to say I’m a sensitive and willing receiver, I have no way of knowing what transmissions other people are getting. I’m like a jukebox with a lot of buttons waiting to be pushed, but it’s anybody’s guess how the buttons on my jukebox compare with anybody else’s. My father had a button or two. Walter Kluge was a (mostly) cheerful agnostic who was nonetheless moved to tears by arias in Italian operas, especially La Boheme, which I cannot listen to – thanks to my old man – without weeping some myself, tears running in the family. All through it. My mother Maria Ensslen Kluge wasn’t much of a believer, though she would have liked to be. Yet I can’t forget finding her in the kitchen nook looking out at the garden, crying while the radio played Patti Page’s treacly hit, “Throw Momma From the Train.” You might think it’s pathetic, probably bathetic, especially if you saw the dark-humored Danny DeVito film that took the song title literally, contemplating matricide. But terrible as it was, the song’s lyrics pictured throwing a kiss to Momma from the train. That’s what got my mother. When she heard that song, she was back in Stuttgart in 1923, on a train sliding out of the Hauptbahnhof. It was the first leg of a trip that would bring her to Ellis Island. Left behind on the platform was the mother she would never see again. So maybe everyone is reached this way once in a while. Some people have small jukeboxes, like the ones you see in diners, that you can never turn up as loud as you’d like – and other people have those mighty glowing Wurlitzers you find in roadhouses and old taverns with dozens of tunes, some from last week, others from decades ago, the titles written in hand, the ink long faded, but it’s somebody’s favorite song that you’d better not mess with.
Who’s pushing the buttons? That’s the question. Who’s transmitting? Are these music-encoded memories, these memory-bearing songs mere random hits, like transient snatches of communication we keep hoping for from out space? Or – I put the question carefully – is there something out there? And in us? Does God come into it in some way? And, if so, could the god I picture be something like the disc jockeys of my youth who were god-like figures in their own way, unseen movers, disembodied voices, heavenly voices transmitting across time and distance to a ready and faithful listener?
Martin Block was the first, out of New York City – I was in New Jersey, twenty miles west of the Holland Tunnel – and what he played was pure 1950’s, pre rock-and-roll. The only song I remember was the show’s theme: “It’s the make-believe ballroom time, the hour of sweet romance.” The real music was in his voice, suave, confident, “continental.” I kept wondering what Martin Block looked like, if the rest of him matched his voice. When I saw him – it must have been an early TV appearance – I learned the answer was no: he was a natty man with a thin mustache that was out of style even then. Martin Block looked like a haberdasher – equally out of style – and just as certain film stars couldn’t transit from silent films to talkies, Martin Block was a voice that couldn’t be satisfactorily incarnated. It was good that gods and d.j.s work out of sight, I thought.
Wolfman Jack was something else again. Holed up in a mega radio station across the border from Del Rio, Texas, the Wolfman mixed gravelly black evangelizing, plugs for live chickens, for Jesus pictures that glowed in the dark, with songs by early rhythm and blues groups, the Coasters, the Olympics, all those bird groups: Ravens, Penguins, Meadlowlarks, Orioles. “Get naked children,” he preached. “When you’re naked, you’re closer to the lord.” By the time I met him, he’d already been canonized by an appearance in American Graffiti, and his career had gotten... well, complicated. I was subpoenaed after an interview I did with him; there was some kind of dispute between him and his manager which I was supposed to be able to clarify. The Wolfman was a hustler, an Italian American I guess, who confessed to being born in New Jersey, pimping in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, dodging bullets in Mexico before winding up ... and down ... in Los Angeles. He was an imperfect man to say the least and that such as he could have meant so much to so many kids suggests there was a whiff of divinity in his carny act. But the greatest disc jockey of all was someone I never saw, he was only a voice in the air on a Jewish-owned black-staffed radio station. WVON – “Voice of the Negro” – that kept me company on the loneliest Saturday nights I ever had during my first months of graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1967. His name was Herbert Rogers Kent, Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent, and he was with me when I sat in my room at the International House, not knowing anyone, not sure where to go, waiting for a new chapter to begin. The Cool Gent saved me. He was a dazzling monologist something like Jean Shepherd, but Shepherd was a writer. Kent was a talker, his beautiful words as here-and-gone as the wind that blew down the Midway, the steam that came up from manhole covers, that fluttered and floated and vanished. For the Cool Gent, I have only memories to count on. The Cool Gent wrapped his riffs in songs, Chicago soul, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Jerry Butler, the Five Stair Steps, Billy Stewart, Walter Jackson and some very local groups like Baby Huey and the Babysitters. Every song trailed memories, generated stories, tone poems about high school dances, old flames, lost friends, “some fine hammer from DuSable High School.” The Cool Gent was a poet, his very voice changed the way you looked at the unprepossessing, winter-sooty world around you, bare trees and frozen lawns, back alleys and fire escapes, the wind – “the hawk” – whipping around every corner; all of this the Cool Gent transformed into a land of magic, memory and sexy possibility. That was what he did. Of all the disc jockeys, he was the poet and the poet, Philip Sidney contended, was prophet, priest and king.
What comes next is hardest and anyone who thinks I make too much of these songs, these evanescent melodies, anyone who suspects I have stared too long in my life’s rear-view mirror and that, bottom line, I am – as we say in New Jersey – carrying six pounds of shit in a five pound bag – had better stop here. For my largest conjecture is about to come. And I put it – with no disrespect, and with no intention to blaspheme – in the form of a question: if it’s possible to attribute god-like qualities to disc jockies, might it be possible, even desirable, to picture god as something of a disc jockey as well?
We live, as is well known, in an imperfect world. Carry on as I do about music and memories and yet, if we add them all up, these K-Mart epiphanies, they are far outweighed by the patches of silence and static in our life. In a perfect world, an omnipotent god at the helm, our lives would be like movies, with a continuous sound track. The music would have us covered, Super Dolby, wall to wall, a note for every step, a note for every breath we take. The theme from Rocky would trail me when I slipped into my sweat pants and stocking cap and went running. And Tex Ritter’s version of “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” the theme from High Noon, would escort me into faculty meetings. The Ronettes’ “When I Saw You” would be in the air, along with the whiff of a hot meal, when I welcomed my wife at the end of a long day. But life’s not that way; mostly, we get noise. Now I’m aware that God gets credit for those long un-magical passages when he withdraws. They tell me this is unsupervised recreation, free-will time, when we establish God’s godliness and our humanity by screwing up. Clever stuff. And if the idea of a passive-aggressive deity hanging at the edge of a playground listening for the first four-letter word appeals to you, feel free. But before you go, consider God, the disc jockey, operating from a mighty transmitter across many time zones and borders – we’re talking way out there – at the mercy of bad weather, mutinous equipment, sun spots – and, as a rule, better received at night. Picture God at some heavenly console, sending music out to all of us, but the playlist is finite and the audience is infinite, god’s time is forever and our time is short. Is it any wonder that we only hear from God now and then? That what we get is occasional music on no fixed schedule, now tantalizing, then mocking, and sometimes so right-on it can break your heart. And granted, it lacks the constancy of opera, it lacks the careful patterning of classical music, adagios and allegros duly placed and please, no applause between movements, it lacks the fidelity of Hollywood soundtracks, John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith following you around like a dog on a leash. God, the disc jockey, is only sometimes on the air. That is why we have to keep listening. That is why, when I take long car trips, I avoid the cassette and CD players my friends carry along, for this preempts what should be left to a higher power. It presumes too much. I take my chances on the radio, on whatever’s out there, suffer through farm prices and talk shows, keep myself available for a song that might be headed my way. I can’t make it happen, but I can be ready, if it does. If it doesn’t, I’ll understand. God, the disc jockey, contends with advertisements, news, public service spots. It is not, we need to be reminded, all about us. Not that we ever learn. Consider the requests that arrive from God, the d.j.’s listening audience. This isn’t about Donna from West Orange dedicating Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to Josh in Tenafly, no way. This isn’t about first love, old love, breaking up and making up. These requests to God are urgent, concerning tumors and wars, famine and plague, children dying, every play-this-for-me is a prayer, a matter of life and death. It’s not an easy job and it doesn’t surprise me if God, the d.j. has some yeah, well, whatever days. If God can’t knock off early some days, who can? For some time, I’ve suspected that, like his – or her – earthly agents, God the d.j., doesn’t personally respond to every incoming prayer, i.e. please play “Wild Thing” for all the guys down at Jiffy Lube. My hunch is that if God the d.j. feels like playing “Wild Thing,” or better yet, “I Believe In Miracles, Where You From, You Sexy Thing?” that’s what gets played. An underling finds someone who requested that song. How, really, could it be otherwise?
All of this may seem wishful. People more strenuously concerned with their spiritual lives may find what I’ve said less rigorous than they like. I don’t disagree. What I offer in God, the d.j., is less a profession of faith than an expression of hope. So call me wishful. In the end I may be disappointed but my life is richer for having hoped. Those moments of contact with the d.j. upstairs are as close to heaven as I’ve come. Whether there is such a place and whether I get to it is another, less interesting, subject; the journey, not the destination, was always the point. So the moment may or may not come, on the other side, when the music grows louder, clearer, finer as I get closer and what I hear is Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” – sung slowly, please – and for my wife – Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love.” This is what I hoped it was all coming to – to God, the disc jockey – and if it doesn’t work out, it was what I loved in the world I left behind, taverns with great jukeboxes and good friends.