Archive for the The Clash Category

The History of Youth Part II or An Ode to John Denver

Posted in Autobiographical, Carmarthen, Central College, John Denver, K1000, Llanstephan, Llanstephan Castle, Snowden, Snowden Horseshoe, Trinity College, Uncategorized, United 747, Wales on April 7, 2012 by smpiv

          “He was born in the summer of his 27th year

           Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before”

          John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

For me it was in my eighteenth year; and it didn’t inspire a song; and it wasn’t until years later that I realized it.

I

I had been dumped off at Heathrow Airport, wide eyed, stiff, and tired, having endured the people packaging process aboard a United 747, toward the end of August in 1977. From there I had taken the HST from London to Cardiff and then to a slower train that would detrain me in Carmarthen.

My eyes grew wider still during this part of the journey when I was having difficulty understanding the people around me.  They were speaking English, the King’s English, but it was being filtered through less than regal mouths that seemed to be swallowing large bits of vowels and consonants and singing at the same time.

The result was a herky-jerky, sing-song language that my ears had no talent for and as we headed deeper into Wales it got worse.  This was to be my year abroad in the safety of an English speaking country.  It was my sophomore year and I was excited and scared.  This inability to understand my mother tongue was disconcerting.

My arrival in Carmarthen was celebrated by no one, including the woman who was supposed to pick me up at the train station and take me to Llanstephan, about twenty minutes outside of town by bus.

Lesson #1—you didn’t hail cabs in Carmarthen, you called for them.

Lesson #2—you smell of your country of origin, you might as well have a flag on your back.

An American girl quickly surmised my dilemma after asking me where in the US I was from without me opening my mouth.

Both insulted and happy to meet a fellow American I told her where I had come from, where I was headed and my lack of transportation. She quickly agreed to share a cab to Trinity College, which was to be my eventual destination, just not my first.  I was quickly 60p into my limited resources.

The cab deposited my at the gate to the College and the guard directed my to the Admin building where I repeated my dilemma.  After a few phone calls and a bit of time I was united with the wife of the Resident Director who oversaw the foreign students.  On the drive to Llanstephan she was adamant that I shouldn’t be there, that in fact I was to arrive the following day.  I was an inconvenience.

Lesson #3—physical presence often does little to overcome perception.

Llanstephan can best be described as quaint. Its importance had long since passed into the fog of history. The Normans had built a castle there during their conquest, its hulking ruin left to overlook the village below (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llansteffan_Castle). Now a byway of history it was left to be little touched by modern hands—it did bow to electricity, but otherwise it inadvertently developed its quaintness.

So there I was, an American, from a country that didn’t exist when most of Llanstephan was built sitting among thirteen or fourteen Americans listening to a recitation of the handbook we had been given before we came.

“This thick handbook (recitation) holds more information than you may want to read or be able to absorb.” Check.

“I understand myself to be the product of an American family, American schools, American media, American life-styles and values.” Check—I already waved the flag without even trying.

“I will see the year as a living laboratory.” Wow, life size Rat-Mazes—damn, I’m already drifting.

“I will deliberately keep my expectations low, my opinions quiet, my emotions in check.”  Of course, the “this-party-is-going-to-suck” approach to life.  OK let’s get this party started.

It went on for a couple of hours as we went through a few mid-seventies versions of trust exercises and what was then called rapping.

And then I was alone.

I remember sitting among these people.  A motley collection of young Americans that, as the year progressed, would show the best and worst our country had to offer.  It was a collection that I wanted no part of—I wanted to get on with it.

I was taken from my funk by the mildly lisping voice of the person I had decided on first site I wanted nothing to do with.

“Do you want to room with me?”

“Of course,” I said ever wary of confrontation and “keeping my expectations low,…(and) my emotions in check.”

Mark and I would spend the rest of the year together as a unit.  We eventually were given the nick-names, Captain America and Joe Cool, by our English classmates.  I can’t remember which one I earned; no matter, I was no longer alone.

II

Quickly escaping the gravity of our American brothers and sisters, Mark and I made our escape.

It would be an escape that would last the year.  We never purposely avoided our countrymen, no; it was quite easy, because they quickly formed a pack that seemed to avoid interaction.  They chose to do everything together and to have very little interaction with the Welsh, English, Scots, Dutch, and whoever would come through the school that was other than American.

“Rather than flaunt my American life-style or my personal independence, I will study and try to adapt to the local patterns.” Check.

Lesson #4—familiarity breeds familiarity.

Our first interaction with the college student body would be in a class called Outdoor Pursuits.  We would travel in what Mark and I would later call the 30/30 or the Tea and Pee mode of travel.  Thirty minutes into the trip get tea; thirty minutes later pee; rinse and repeat until you reach your destination. It made every short trip a journey.

This particular journey would land us in the Welsh highlands where we would stay in a hostel and then hike the Snowden Horseshoe that included Snowden, the highest elevation in Wales.  Following this we would visit a lake that if you were to spend the night it was said you would wake the next morning either of poet or crazy.

My initial train ride to Carmarthen had introduced me to South Wales which had been infected by industry and Brit Steel in particular.  Swansea, Cardiff and most towns in between were homely towns built quickly beyond their initial rural beginnings to satisfy man made industry.

Swansea was the bitter end of this plague and Carmarthen, for the most part, escaped this blight.  It had the feel of a larger town built around the rural fortunes of the land surrounding it.

As we made our way north towards Snowdon the countryside and the manifold levels of green took over.  The towns and villages looked as if they had grown from the earth fitting comfortably and, yes, quaintly into the land.  It was lush and beautiful.

As we neared the mountains and they reared their heads above the horizon the vegetation began to thin and take on a Tolkien doom-scape feel.  All angular and jutting the mountains hacked at the sky, a beautifully deep blue sky, with wispy green carpets joining the rough hewn granite together.  I was comfortable and at home in this landscape.

A picture that Mark took of me with my trusty K1000 just after we arrived shows a fading layer of pimply skin, a bit of baby fat, and a mop of curly, thick hair all framing my usual wincing grin-smile.  I was three months short of my nineteenth birthday.

          “He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again

You might say he found a key for every door”

          John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

Lesson #5—maybe John Denver was God after all.

It was the wind.  There was no song, no lullaby, no incessant humming, just the wind. It was a sparse landscape that did nothing to capture the wind, just gave it voice as it whipped through rock crevices and shook the low laying plant life.  It moved the clouds at a vigorous pace across the sky until as we moved higher up the horseshoe we were surrounded by a cloudy heaven.

Our guide was a man in his sixties who defied his age.  Chatty, who tended to talk as he walked and fell silent when he stopped, the previous conversation overwhelming his silences.

As we neared the summit the clouds began to thin and hints of sun popped through here and there.  Our guide stopped, gathered us around, and in a voice that lowered an octave, he described one of the rarest, most magical, sites one could behold in these spare, rocky peaks—the circular rainbow.

He could only tell us on faith, and second-hand knowledge that they existed, for he, in all his years, had never seen one. He paused.

The sun burned its way through the clouds and, as if on cue, met with the clouds to form a circular rainbow just over his shoulder.

“Like that?” I said.

He turned, was struck dumb and he gasped, his hand coming to his mouth and he cried.  He was alone in his thoughts.

“Thank you,” he said to no one in particular with tears streaming down his face.

Lesson #6—life is fair, it’s just not consistent.

III

So there you have it, my release from my adolescent womb.  The birthing process I have to admit took years and not hours, but began my adult journey there.  I was set free to chase and dream of my own circular rainbows.

I saw one man touch the face of God and I can only hope that my circular rainbow is out there to be had.

Amen, and pass the chips.

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The History of Poetry Part I or My Welsh Brother

Posted in Autobiographical, Joan Armatrading, The Clash on March 11, 2011 by smpiv

Rain.

Rain, rain, go away…….

Joan Armatrading.

Bad poetry?

No.

I.

At one time her first album might as well have been my theme music; my signature color.

It wasn’t the words, because, truthfully, not until recently have I actually listened to the words to a song.  And even now I have a difficult time parsing the words from the music—musical dyslexia?  Perhaps.  Might explain my inability to remember the words to a song and don’t even ask me to take dictation—it all jumbles together.

I first heard her music with my girlfriend at the time– Sian McCaffrey.  She was from a small town outside Manchester, England.  We were both students at a small teaching college in Carmarthen, Wales.  It was 1977 and I was all of eighteen years old with a full head of hair.

Her voice—Joan’s not Sian’s—went straight through me.  Every time she clipped a note or popped a “c” or “s” it was like a tuning fork.  She was on my wave length.  Yet she was counter to everything I had listened to—or for that matter what I would later listen too.

Britain was firmly in the grips of Punk—not New Wave—but Punk and I loved it.  “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols was played at every dance (there were two a week) and we all danced the Pogo.  The Pogo?  We literally bounced up and down as if we were on a pogo stick for hours.  The Jam, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, et al, and we pogoed to them all.  It was usually loud, difficult to understand, and completely absorbing.

Joan was my secret pleasure.  Sian and I would be at the Drovers until closing at 11pm, get a couple of bottles of Cider and go back to her room at a parsonage off campus and put that album on.  Again and again, until she kicked me out and I would walk back to my digs at an old Victorian Mansion, off campus as well, with that music in my head.

It was usually raining—ah, finally, the rain part. 

A Welsh weather forecast was usually rain.  You put your rain coat on automatically, without looking out the window.  It was rarely a cold, invasive rain; it was just part of the landscape.  When the sun came out it was usually to peek through or around rain clouds, arc a quick rainbow and then back to rain.

It made for a very green and lush landscape.  It was very Hobbit like in its execution.  Having read the “Lord of the Rings” several times before I arrived, I was struck by the similarity.

That was quickly subverted by the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

For the average Welshman his choir and his poet—in both Welsh and English, was what moved the sun above those eternal rain clouds.  Thomas was the god poet and very much alive for most.

Above all Thomas’ words were carved and warped by that lush countryside; a countryside that defined and redefined the color green; and just as magnificently his words defined an ancient countryside that had been seen to by the guttural sounds of the Welsh language.   

      The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
      Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
      Is my destroyer.
      And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
      My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

II

So there I was very much ready to pogo my way through life—after all I would be eighteen forever, right?  Well I am now long past my Punk days, although I still have a particular soft spot for the Stranglers “Black and White” album, and it’s been years since I walked beneath the rain leadened skies of Wales. 

We often wonder what will last, what will be eternal.  I remember having an argument with my next door neighbor in Poway, California as to who would have more staying power, the Monkees or the Beatles.  I’ll let you guess how smart I was—enough to say it was one of my dimmer moments.

I had forgotten Joan Armatrading until recently.  Not until I listened to it again did I realize how important it had been to me.  Her music had looped in my head as best it could in those days before portable music.  It now conjures up memories long forgotten.

Thomas’ poetry never left me.

I’m not a big poetry guy, but there is something about his words and how he turns and enslaves them for his use that makes me come back again and again.  For me it transcends the page.

More importantly it pushed me beyond my adolescent musings and simplicity and made me think. 

      The force that drives the water through the rocks
      Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
      Turns mine to wax.
      And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
      How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

III

So here I sit, thirty some years later, the rain coming down steadily to knock down the snow to reveal the dirt and grime that is hiding beneath.  It is the rain that brought Joan Armatrading to mind; that brought to mind Dylan Thomas. 

Now in Vermont, another lush, green land probably better described by Robert Frost than Thomas, it is still Thomas’ words that ring in my ears.  His are the words I wish I had written; the words I wish I could have shaped; the words I could have etched.

But I didn’t and I won’t.  So I leave it to the likes of an Armatrading for theme music and the likes of a Thomas to take me beyond myself.  And now I leave you with more of his words—

     And death shall have no dominion.
     Dead men naked they shall be one
     With the man in the wind and the west moon;
     When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
     They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
     Though they go mad they shall be sane,
     Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
     Though lovers be lost love shall not;
     And death shall have no dominion

Good poetry?

Yes.