Tag Archives: bill evans

Jimmie at the Blue Door, Again


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One

The last seaside bar on earth lies just beyond the city limits of a small beach town off the Pacific Coastal Highway. The town isn’t on any map; like a bottle with a scrolled Grail inside tossed to the wave in some faraway beach, you can’t find it nor the bar except by accident, turning left where you meant to turn right three miles back as you drove back from a race one late, weary night.

The bar is old and looking pretty beat-up from storms and the a constant stiff breeze which always works the coast—a ramshackle building, timbers worn thin and grey as bone, just a couple of pickup trucks and a battered woody station wagon from the 40’s parked outside, a single blue neon sign which flickers intermittently, advertising a beer you’ve never heard of.

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Getting out of your car—-a royal blue Chevrolet with a big yellow 48 painted on the roof–the first thing to hit you is the breeze, steady and hard, carrying in its fists the sound of big waves crashing in the distance. As you cross the lot toward the bar’s entrance, each wave’s collapse trembles the ground beneath your feet.

It’s dark outside, O so dark, the gas station and diner across the street empty and mute — perhaps for decades, forever — the sky impenetrable with its dim silvery blue glow of unreachable galaxies, the sea beyond a frontier of absolute black, the bourne no racer returns from.

You can make out faint music leaking from the bar’s interior, almost indecipherable amid the hard coastal mash of wind and wave but alluring, like a stranger’s perfume which has lingered on your pillow from the night before. A jazzy, slow, after-midnight sort of music, the purest accompaniment to hard drinking and desperate liaisons.

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You hate that you find yourself exactly here, between the last wild track and the great blue sea so late at night, so late in the season, with so many angry hot cars right on your tail, with all the added responsibilities of age screaming at you to turn around and go home.

But you know no champion can fail this trial. Racing’s Grail Castle is exactly this anonymous bar smelling of fried oysters and brine – never the same one, but always some dive that seems about to be carried off on the next tide.

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This bar is arrived at only after so long a quest -– 30 races so far, this year – and inside there waits the Cup, hovering in the air behind Wynona, racing’s castle Queen. You know — the pale one with the red hair and violet eyes and blue satin dress. The one whose proper wooing means everything, with the foretold words spoken wholly of the moment, not written in a psalter rescued from the bottom of the sea, or whispered in your ear by a dying priest at Machu Picchu, or radioed in by a crew chief who’s tired, tired of all this shit, who only knows how many tires to change out, how many turns of the trackbar will give your Chevy more grunt and growl than the rest of the field for enough laps to get that Top 5 finish, those precious, lead-adding point.

No, no one has told you the words, and you know you aren’t smart enough to compose them yourself: All you have is your driver’s instinct for the moment, a gift for seeing openings and trouble on the track infinitesimal instants before or ahead of anyone else.

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That instinct will give you the words at just the right moment. It must, or her eyes will glaze into a gaze which lets you know she’s already focused on someone behind you and made up her mind to tryst with him, bestowing her silvery blue satin scarf around the next champ’s neck, hoisting him high on that invisible hanging tree that lurks just behind Victory Row, taking her prize just as the man beams and holds the Cup high, as if that were the prize, the end …

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But first, you have to get through that door.

Four times now you’ve walked up to the threshold and grabbed hold of the door’s handle, your heart pounding, the night grown suddenly huge: Four times it has creaked open, allowing you access to a spot at the bar with her as the jazz band plays improvisations of old standards with a remove reserved for the dead. Cool blue jazz indeed, a flicker of a heartbeat above rigormortis.

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Four times you’ve clinked glassware with Wynona til time made no sense, and when she leaned close to kiss you, that immense feminine power of the track goddess enveloped you in a roar of horsepower not found in any car, ever. You then found yourself crossing dreaming winter heavens in your Chevy’s boat-cum-crystal bed with her, romancing the infinite leagues of her abyss, celebrating the New Year in her blue jazz honkeytonk beneath the wave amid the ghosts of so many champions – Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherley, Tim Flock and Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Dale Earnhardt, all of them now dead, all raising their gold cups to you with hard eyes and icy smiles fraught with the knowledge of Destiny’s infinitely wild and deep and ultimately drowning sea.

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Is it just a night you spend there, always on the eve of your next championship? Seems like 300 years passes before you come to on pit row at Daytona walking up to your Chevy, now cleaned of all the kelp and barnacles and shipwreck tackle that got mired in its works by passage, primed and ready the next great run. Someone else stood in for you during Champion’s Week at Vegas; a smiling moneyed and relaxed Jimmie-doppelganger vacationed with Chandra at Cazumel and Capri and Thailand; that picture of you with President Obama with your No. 48 Chevy parked in front of the White House – staged by Wynona’s Powers, her vast blue satin veil of fame settling over our eyes so that all we see is fame and its receipts, hiding the true boon of Victory – Her feast, from November through January, on the mortal bone of her Champion.

No wonder you race as in a daze, preternaturally composed, unsure even which track you are to head for next. That’s because you are less and less on every track you race now, slowly waking to the possibility of that dark blue dream of yet another tryst with Her. The greater the destiny—now a record five consecutive championships in the offing—the cooler you seem, more laid-back than a 14-year-old surfer dreaming on the warm sands of Pismo Beach. You’re almost invisible now at the wheel.

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And here you are again, on the verge of entering for the fifth row in a year — something no one else has done?

Not that the door will open. Nothing was decided enough at Charlotte; you finished third behind non-Chase contender Jamie McMurray and out-of-Chase Kyle Busch; Denny Hamlin was right behind you; Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon lost enough ground to render making it up very difficult. Martinsville this weekend will be the showdown between the leaders; you and Hamlin have won the past eight races there; the fateful checkers may fall there.

But then, Talladega waits …

No one has found this bar so many years in a row.

Few have gained entrance as many times.

Will it open yet again?

And do you have you the strength, the cajones, the unrivaled gall to go in if it does, knowing what you do?

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Two

She explained things to you on the eve of the second Phoenix race in 2007, where you won your fourth straight race in a row and clinched your second straight championship.

That night the bar was closer to ‘Frisco – a fog-bound 2 a.m., freighters mooing to each other in the soup, the night cold, thickly insinuating itself like a ghost from an all-too recent past, a freshly cracked grave with dirty tracks disappearing into the woods.

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The door opened.

Inside, the gloom was cheery in that icy alcoholic dope-fiend way, everything in dreamy slo-mo free-fall, booze providing oblivion’s descending shroud, heroin shutting down the system to barely heart-and-lungs.

Up on the bandstand, the band was playing a version of “Freddie the Freeloader” with country flavors added in – three extra players riffing modally on banjo and jug and mouth-harp. The effect was disastrously perfect, a head-on collision between hostile genres, like a T-bird convertible of hep-cats mashed into the squonking Model T of the Beverley Hillbillies, bodies strewn everywhere. Yet the night was purple, stout and aching with the odd glee of Destiny, always the inverse of what we think. Only a goddess woulda thunk such cool country would herald her next appointment.

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You and her were drinking whiskey chasers with steins of Anchor Steam cold in hand. Her thick red hair almost black in the blue neon beer-lights hanging over the bar, her green dress like sharkskin, working the light so strangly, a huge blue sapphire hanging between her breasts. And you in your firesuit, still reeking of Charlotte.

Somehow your shapes almost merged in the cracked smoky mirror.

Because they were …

She was talking in your ear, loud enough to get around the band’s corn-pone version of “Flamenco Sketches.” “You fly the Oval heavens in your teammate, mentor and former friend Jeff Gordon’s double – a blue Chevy with a bright yellow 48 on the roof. The colors are not accidental to your tale. They are a perfect match for heaven – blue skies forever, the sun promising glory, gain, triumph, pleasure, truth, success. A championship blend, but it’s more than that. Blue is the color of the inner folds of my robe, the scent of my satin lingerie. Your dark blue is the color of that stratosphere you can only access with a thousand horses under the hood and straightaways at 200 mph.”

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She spoke staring at you in the mirror as you listened, staring directly at her. That’s how it works. You know. Fame is all about eyes – of beholder and beholden, the candescent celebrity and those who would see themselves in that light, the way Psyche loved Eros because she could see herself in the magnitude in his eyes. It’s like the Tarot card of the Lovers: the man looks on the naked breasts of his Beloved as the pure sum of his infinite; the woman looks up at Heaven to receive the full bestowal of her desire.

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Wynona took a drag on her Winston and exhaled slowly and thickly, like smoke from a burnout. Her violet eyes were almost black in the mirror’s dark reflection, aged at this game yet still aglint with the silver of wooing. “Blue is the color of your true love’s eyes, the one you will marry and who will bear your children. Blue is the inside of what is now called the Sprint Cup—a forbidding, welcoming blue, like the deep blue sea which folds and crashes on the shores of your beachside mansion, paid for by my secret, unholy embrace.”

Her voice was becoming thick and eel-like to your booze-befuddled ears, as if coming to you from surf instead of barstool.

“Blue is what I have again decided that I love about you. So buckle up and unzip, lover. We’re going to race together every sea and sky.”

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With that, she stubbed out her cigarette and headed out the door. You watched her leave in the mirror, her hips moving with such rounded perfection under that dark blue dress, her red hair caught for a moment in the Exit light beneath the door, suddenly aflame – then gone.

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Blue is color of the odd bittersweetness of achieving an unparalled human height and knowing you shall die unable to return to those portraits of infinity, holding high the next Cup as a million cameras flash like stars.

It is the color of knowing how all of this is out of your hands, though you do what you must. It’s just the color of the car you signed on to drive, though all that winning has made it the color every other driver has nightmares of, off and on the track.

Blue is the color of the door you must go through.

It lurks in all the shadows gathered here.

It endlessly folds and crashes and recedes, just beyond the last bar open at this hour on Earth.

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Following the rules of enactment, you stay on through the band’s final set. The country players file out quickly, jug of sour mash swinging from the banjo player’s hand. The jazzmen recessed to a back room where they shoot up. Boozers and dopers are a different breed, especially when it’s 4 a.m. going on forever.

That year it was Bill Evans who emerged that room and sat with you a while, his eyes looking freshly done up, icing his extraordinary, killing jones for Beauty. (His long-time girlfriend Peri Cousins once said he suffered so every time he took the stage, crucifying himself on an immortal cross of lyric perfection; the dope saved him from Rapture, bleeding him back to earth.)

Evans’ voice was calm and lucid as he continued that year’s lecture. There was much to learn, as the dimension of repeat championship changed everything, making winning big a mythic reenactment.

A Kool hung from Evans’ lips as he spoke, the way one did when he was at the piano onstage with the band. It made him talk in a sideways, almost sinister way. “The yellow of the 48 represents the sun, clear, wide-awake, beaming with precision and beauty. One end of yellow’s spectra is hot as burning sulphur, mad for victory, coming round the turns in a molten blur; on the other end it’s pure gold, like the satch of sunset on your wife’s face as she walks with you by the sea. That gold aura will hover over your future daughter as she sleeps.

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Framed by blue skies, yellow is waking in a bed after a night of passionate surrenders that’s far at sea, floating on uteral blue, the skies so lamped a perfect assent and surrender.”

Evans mashes out the butt of his Kool in a brimming plastic ashtray and taps another one out of the pack, lighting it from a matchbook bearing the insignia of the Village Vanguard in New York. He inhales deeply the mentholated smoke and then lets it ripple back out slowly, like a descending riff on the keyboard. The black hornrimmed glasses would look geeky on Evans were it not for the eyes inside – dark coals of insatiable desire, not for pussy so much as its cathedral mood, the romance of engangement, the enthralling feel of Beauty as the image of it floods the  heart.

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He stays silent, having played the chords of the setup. It’s your turn to solo, showing off the chops you’ve learned which gave you entrance through that door that night.

You begin slowly, turning a shotglass of Jose Cuervo Gold slowly one way then the other in your fingers, like a steering wheel during a caution. “Yellow is the flag which empowers the madness of the double-file green-white-checker restart. It is the streak of Hendrick enginepower which maneuvers around Hamlin and Harvick on the last lap, streaking like a torch under the checkers.

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“Yellow is the high five of blue, the only color apparent during burnouts,” you say. “It is what leaps from the firesuits of the Sprint Cup girls as they stand and smile while I spray their beaming faces with foaming jets of champagne.

“Yellow is the gold beam of the Sprint Cup as I hold it high, offering the Grail back to God. Yellow is the burn in my weary, track-harrowed, season-hallowed nerves, still bright despite the black exhaustion settling down, its triumph lifting me to NASCAR Valhalla once again, that RV in the sky where Wynona lounges with Dale and Lee and Fireball.” That’s all you know so you shut up.

Evans is silent for a while, bent over imaginary keys on the bar, pondering how to climb a pair of notes up and over that in a manner which replicates exactly the pouty red nipples which Wynona reveals when she drops her blue satin dress.

“We will meet again,” Evans pronounces, a statement which is bittersweet, so fraught with yes and no, blue and yellow, Jimmie Johnson and Sprint Cup Championships for more years than anyone can believe. (“We Will Meet Again” is also the song he composed after his brother’s suicide, and the title of the album which was posthumously released.)

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Lighting another Kool from the last, Evans heads off to join the band for another squeeze of the needle’s white oblivion.

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It’s long past closing time, but no one seems in any hurry to leave. The bartender (a beefy guy who’s surely cold-cocked more than a few drunken belligerents in his decades or centuries of service at this bar) whips you up a concoction that is somehow about eighty proof stronger than a combined Long Island Iced Tea, Bastard on the Beach and Zombie–six shots of various rotgut liquors laced with lemonade, seltzer water, fish sauce, what smells like Clorox and a fistful of cherries. A tiny pink umbrella sizzles and melts into the viscous mess. The cherries are so laced with preservatives that they hang out in the bottom of the drink like the balls of varied sharkbit skinnydippers.

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You drink it down in one long guzzle, like a magnum of Sunoco gasoline dumped into the tank of your pitting 48.

“The deep blue and brilliant yellow of the ‘48’ make it difficult to see or even imagine a driver,” the bartender says, completing the night’s, that season’s, lesson. “It is a chariot only a god can command, like Phoebus who rode the sun-car across the heavens every day. The man you mortally are is wholly hidden by the brilliant colors of the car.

“No one will figure out how you will manage to win so many consecutive championships. I mean, look at it – you ain’t no hillbilly Earnhardt, no firebrand Smoke or Harvick, no hotshot pisser Kyle Busch. You’re Jimmie fer Chrissakes, mild-mannered, diffident, Jiminy Cricket. Fame exudes from your countenance like cologne whose scent is too subtle for humans to smell, though she-wolves and sea-witches and certain track-bitches are said to go mad getting just a whiff.

He dumps glassware into a tub of the dirtiest-looking dishwater you have ever seen, swishes them once, dumps them into even dirtier-looking rinsewater in a second tub, then lines them up in a row. An tall, apelike, rough-looking guy, biceps like eggplants bulging from a t-shirt that has Spartacus in his chariot silk-screened on the front. (The back side, which you can see in the mirror, shows a diving sperm whale.) He could easily take on Popeye and Bruno at the same time. His forearms are heavily tattooed with a variety of broken hearts and anchors and dancing girls with devil’s tails.

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“But the ladies know. They have their favorites for different reasons. Those who love you would love to mother champions. Your sperm burns blue and gold, like gold at the bottom of the sea.

It doesn’t seem possible, but this brute begins waxing poetical-mythological. He’s obviously worked a long, long, shift.

“Yer fame, ya see, is growin’ like the visage of Zeus, the  Greek god Numero Uno who was too brilliant for any mortal or subdeity to behold. So when he spent one night with Semele the moon goddess in her silver trailer, he was taken aback when she asked to see her lover man’s face in the raw, in full radiance.

Zeus warned her of the peril, but the bitch was adamant, wanting a piece of god none of the other fillies at the track could claim to have gotten hold of. So the everlovin’ gawdamighty King of Heaven reluctantly pulled off the shroud which allowed him to go callin’ in the trailer chicken house. Semele was immolated by a thousand lightning bolts, crisped to charred black bacon by the full voltage of Zeus.”

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The bartender refreshes your drink by topping it off with a squirt of eel juice that makes your glass glow green.

“To save his child,” the bartender continues, badass Zeus reached into the blackened depths of Semele’s womb and pulled out quivering red mass. He tore his thigh, creating a space for the embryo, and then sewed the child back up until he’d grown to term.

“The child was named Dionysos and became blue-haired god of revelry and abandon, sun’s full gold invested in the blue-black wilderness of lunar landscapes. Whiskey’s fire is in his belly and every blue brassiere flung out a car window belongs to him. Wynona is his favorite booty-call and her come to her silver trailer at the bottom of the sea on nights when the sag of the sun far under the earth draws him to depths you and I will never be able to name.”

By this time, the bar is all but emptied out, the doper jazzmen not so much departed as wholly diffused, like spent smoke, the few lonely truckers speeding home in blackout zigzags on the coastal highway.

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The bartender finishes his assay as he stacks barstools, one by one, like the failed hopes of your Chase contenders.

“The deep blue and sulphur yellow of the No. 48 are the pistoning of Dionysos in Wynona, their cries lost in the thunder of the great Oval, or rather composing the deepest registers of it on race nights when your No. 48 can’t be beat. You’re just driving as you always do, radioing back to Chad the performance news, data to use on the next pit as your team tweaks, in Apollonian fashion, the sun car to its fiercest edge.

He pauses to wipe his forehead with an old yellow rag, perhaps as old as the Golden Fleece which Jason stole from a sleeping dragon.

“And yet it is Apollo’s dark brother who’s working the lanes ahead, pleasuring Wynona like no other, revealing creamy folds of vibrating pink for you to steer directly through, not so much driving and holding on for dear life as your little boat careens the oval vortex which devours all other comers.“

“Where do you get all this shit from?” you ask thickly, your tongue going flat like a tire in your mouth as the dark potion in your glass goes to work.

He stills, looking into a history made opaque by the gloom of the bar, so very, very late at night.

“She and I go way back. Way way back. I rode a championship team in the chariot races in the Arena for almost ten years straight. Then that bastard Spartacus showed up, and there was nothing I could do to keep her from chasing after him. For old time’s sake she hired me to work this joint on the dear edge of Hell.

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He pauses.

“Tonight you got lucky. You got in. You’re her man tonight. Which means you have work to do.

“Closing time, pal.”

Which is fine with you. The booze of that awful concoction (Destiny’s Booty Call, it’s called, served up only in that changeling bar you not so much discover as become lost at on the border between land and sea while getting hot at the end of the NASCAR season) has wormed its way through every conscious node and synapse, causing the silvery blue of your reverie to descend league by league toward the abyss of black. You barely recall leaving the joint –- the smack of freezing foggy late night air jolted you back for a moment -– or that, when you stumbled into your Chevy, she was sitting in a passenger seat which doesn’t exist on race day.

The last thing you remembered that night—before Homestead, actually, was her whispering in his ear:

“Drive, lover. Drive like the wind. Drive like the sun-car racing to dawn. Drive with only clean air ahead. Drive with your pedal to the metal, your balls to my walls. Git ‘er done, love. Drive!”

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Three

Miles Davis and his sextet recorded Kind of Blue over two sessions in March and April of 1959. Davis assembled musicians considered at their pinnacle of cool inventiveness—pianist Bill Evans (for most of the album, though pianist Wynton Kelly was brought in for the two bluesiest numbers), Cannoball Adderley and John Coltrane on sax, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb. Bringing in just a few scribbled notes, Davis sketched out the tunes to the band and they just took off with them, recording the numbers with no rehearsal and in just two takes each.

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As hard bebop was beginning to wear out its welcome with ever-more-complex chord changes, Davis was experimenting with a new style called modal jazz, where improvising was freed from the minor and major key relationships of classical music. George Russell had begun the sea change with modal experiments in his band, and Bill Evans had been a member of that ensemble. Coltrane became an acknowledged master of the form. Instead of bebop’s complex, dragonish boil, modal jazz brought a form of cool detachment which served the time well, just as the young middle class was discovering recreational drugs and sought to silver the heating pace of history with something cold and blue and slower in temperament.

Kind of Blue was released in August 1959 and quickly became a gold standard for jazz. It is considered Davis’ best album, is the best-selling album ever released, and is consistently ranked among the best albums of all time.

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The cut “Blue in Green” is perhaps the most wistful, bittersweet piece on the album. Miles Davis always claimed authorship, but most believe that Bill Evans at least had a part in the composition. The chord progressions are quintessential Evans, gorgeous lattices upon which Davis and Coltrane and Adderley wove their earnest solos.

Imagine a rickety ladder which fails to clear the night to reach heaven although it tries, it tries, succeeding better than just about any other song, making its ultimate failure the quintessence of addict longing – there’s never enough, ever. The final wash of descending chords at the end of “Blue in Green” is like fate’s ebbing wave, exhausted, spent, its waxing beauty now just a fading resonance, soon enough gone forever.

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Play “Blue in Green” at the funerals of every player in the 1959 Kind of Blue sessions save one. Cool blues as they mastered it had cold rungs of alcohol and drug addiction on its modal ladder; you can hear it’s hole-in-the-soul sucking sound between every everlasting note. Coltrane, a fierce heroin addict, was dead of liver cancer in 1967 at 40. Pianist Wynton Kelly was the next to go in 1971, dead at age 39 from an epileptic seizure; Cannonball Adderley suffered diabetes and in 1975 died of stroke at 48. Bill Evans was a longtime heroin and then cocaine addict and died in 1980 at age 51 of bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver and bronchial pneumonia. (A friend characterized his death as “the longest suicide in history”). Miles Davis kicked his heroin habit and lived to age 65, succumbing in 1991 to stroke and respiratory failure. Only drummer Jimmy Cobb is still alive and kickin’ the kit, now 81.

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“Blue in Green” was recorded during the first Kind of Blue session, in March 1959. About the same time, Johnny Beauchamp won the Grand National race at Lakewood Speedway in ’59 T-Bird. It was his first career win, having been squeaked out in the photo finish earlier in the year at Daytona (he was 24 inches behind winner Lee Petty). Beauchamp would win one other race, the next year in Nashville.

Beauchamp lead all 100 laps of the Lakewood race against the brightest lights of NASCAR’s legendary days–Buck Baker and Tom Pistone and Fireball Roberts, Tiny Lund and Cotton Owens, and Lee Petty, the guy who won the inaugural race at Daytona Speedway earlier that year and who would go on to win his third Grand National championship with 12 wins.

Beauchamp won just once more, in Nashville the next year.

Like Fireball Roberts (who died in a flaming wreck in 1963), Lee Petty might surely have driven to NASCAR’s greatest fame. He won 5 races in 1960 finishing sixth overall. 1961 promised to be a great year, but during Speed Weeks at Daytona he and Johnny Beauchamp locked up during a qualifying run, causing both cars to bust through a guardrail and into a parking lot.

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Lee was seriously injured in the wreck –- he spent four months in the hospital –- and he was forced to retire the steering wheel of his team to his son Richard. It was Richard who became King, the winningest racer in all of NASCAR, with 200 victories and 7 championships. (Richard Petty also holds both the old and modern season record for wins at 27 and 13 respectively.)

Johnny Beauchamp suffered minor head injuries in the same wreck with Lee Petty, yet it was also his last NASCAR race.

Lee Petty was recently named to the second class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Johnny Beauchamp all but disappeared.

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Though Beauchamp’s career was short, fatefully ended tangled in the wreckage of the Petty who Would Be King, Wynona has a thing for the one who almost beat Lee at the ’59 Daytona 500. Actually, Beauchamp was first declared the winner, and would have stayed that way had not newsreel footage made available to Big Bill France caused NASCAR’s governor and CEO to reverse the decision in Petty’s favor.

After his wreck with Lee Petty in 1961 at Daytona, Beauchamp returned to Iowa and local dirt track racing; but his fame – all of it latent – Wynona kept for herself. That part of the man came to work as a barback at Wynona’s seaside bar(s), cleaning vomit from the bathroom stalls, blood from the walls and everything else after the bar’s closed down for the night.

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Actually, everyone who’s found in Wynona’s clamshell dig is really just the projection of their NASCAR fame, for better or worse, wound around the thorny calyx of her strange love for cool jazz. The silver parts of their shadows, the way that the band is the jonesing part of Kind of Blue, a personification of the riffs.

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It is the place where Fame comes to drink, with a thrist so great that it could empty the great blue sea in one long draught.

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It is now late in the night of October 20, 2010, and things in the Frolic Room are settling into the stilling freeze of the pickling process. Joe Weatherley and Fireball Roberts are knocking back empty shot glasses and miming rollicking laughter to a dirty joke. Up onstage, blue shadows of Miles and the crew are playing “Blue in Green,” Evans bent over his piano with a Kool hanging loosely from his lips, Miles silhouetted by the single spotlight trained on the stage, rasping out the notes Wynona loves so well.

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She’s at the bar alone, lost in reverie to the song, her pale white hands cupping a martini glass that’s filled with vodka colder than the ocean at 20 thousand leagues – cold comfort, wild solace, bitches’ brew.

She’s thinking, too, her mind turning on a spit beneath which booze and desire and “Blue and Green” are burning up her loins. Trying to make up her mind. Is love still blue and yellow? Or is it darker this year, blue gone down to a purple so deep its almost black, yellow gone red with frenzy?

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Yes, it could be Hamlin; he’s young and fierce and hungry, o so o so hungry. If only he hadn’t radioed in “All we do is win” ahead of her welcoming kiss. Since then it’s been dicey for the brash Virginian, harsher, harder, more fraught with trackside perils. He still in second behind Johnson, but her four-time champion is slowly, o so slowly beginning to pull away.

She lights a Winston and exhales slowly, the smoke making denser and more spectral Davis’ silhouette. Is it time for a change? Can she get the proper soul mileage out of Denny? Can he surrender the way Jimmie always has, with something between rage and infinite desire, both extremes trapped in the serenest of composures?

Not an easy thing to do, she reflects, turning the bell-shaped cocktail glass, her cold selkie hands warmed by the freezing vodka inside. Davis’ solo makes her shiver with a penetrating eel of pleasure – his horn gruffly barks and coos at the same time, breathing hot in her ear as the man hangs his body on the bloody crucifix of song.

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She delayed making her decision at the Bank of America 600 – still too soon – keeping Hamlin close behind Johnson. She reserves possibility too for Kevin Harvick, only 77 points further behind; his brash style promises a good fuck, but there’s way to much choler in that mustard-slathered No. 29 RCR Chevrolet. He sure knows how to swagger like a champ, she thinks. That would be a change.

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And then there’s her old flames Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart at 85 and 107 points behind respectively, four- and two-time champs who might be good for another roll in the destiny’s hay, if their need for her can burn through the haze of age …

Evans solos, wringing soul out of his piano like none other with Chambers on bass around and behind him, pitching rollers of deep sound like the crashing sea. Then Coltrane works in his saxophone, o so jonesing for big night music with notes more diffident than a suicide’s last look in the mirror. Then Evans again, this time playing with the bass, the two of them like a pair of pelicans scrolling over the sea in search of fish; then Coltrane again, taking the song further offshore, almost out of view of land—

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— And then Evans takes things home, collapsing the song wavelike to its end, playing those fatal falling chords like a Sprint Cup car that’s driven off the coastal highway and dropped into the sea, falling and falling down the shelves of abyss toward her final fatal bed (that’s what Championship looks like from her Otherworldly perspective -– the sweetest song to fall all the way to fame’s perdition).

Wynona lifts the glass to her lips and takes a long, deep pull on her martini, finishing it off in one draught. Her sigh is timed perfectly with the last note of the song.

She sets the drained glass back down and looks at herself in the smoky cracked mirror behind the bar. She’s not young any more -– no ripe maiden, at least –- indeterminately in her middle years (like a Penthouse Pet from the ‘80s), the way aging mortals have a fixed image in their minds of themselves, somewhere in their 30s as the years flood down and out the hourglass. Her red hair down in curly waves, her violet eyes burning cold, lips heavily lipsticked a rosy scarlet, like blood, her pale cleavage plunging heavily into a simple blue satin dress.

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She smiles at the mirror; terrified, a fresh crack forms in  its surface.

She’s made up her mind.

She’s ready to offer her boon.

She stares toward the door. Question is, is he ready for her? For what awaits at Martinsville?

At the horror of Talladega?

How close shall she keep it? Will it be decided at Texas or Phoenix? Or shall her handkerchief fall coming through turn 4 on the final lap of Homestead? How to make this interesting, dangerous, wild, sexy?

Small decisions nonetheless, the details of which she works out in her mind while dragging Beauchamp out behind the bar where the sea wind and surf-sounds are loudest. She kneels, unzipping his pants, taking him in her mouth. It’s the sound of his pleasure – ahs and omigods and gggnmmmms – that weave the final tapestry into place.

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Him spent in her mouth, she pats his rear lovingly like an old friend. She wipes her mouth, stands back up rearranging her bra and smoothing down her dress. Beauchamp’s eyes are closed, lost in the soaring orchestrals of the sated night.

She walks back n without looking back, humming Adderley’s solo to “All Blues.”

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Finale

Your sigh is lost in the ocean’s own, composed of waves which crash in milky smithereens of wet thunder and then expire in a sad Ah, the sound your wife always makes when you withdraw after coming in her. That welcome which grieves your every departure, every media appearance, every race.

You match that sound with a sigh of your own, one which no one can hear this night, a surrendering, grieving sound which has deep in its lungs a requietal no one but a repeating champion could know, to be so close and know how infinitely far away the finish line remains.

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You’re at the door now of the bar, gripping the handle of what turns out to be a heavy oak portal, requiring some muscle to pull open, some heft of heart-spirit and ball-spunk which tonight, at this moment, in your season-long fatigue, you don’t know you can muster. But you must; there is no other reason to be exactly here except to try opening that door.

You hear a singular laughter inside, light as tinsel and blue-throated as the sax solo to “Blue in Green” which you can also hear inside.

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You know who’s waiting in there for you. You know you couldn’t have found this bar unless she wanted you to at least try finding a way in.

It’s time now – should the door open — to have a drink with Wynona, fame’s eternal flame as she is called in NASCAR circles, though she has so many handles: Fortune. Destiny. Queen of Heaven. Aphrodite. Venus. Victory.

It’s time now to get down.

Time to dance.

Time to race.

But will the door open? Other cars are beginning to pull into the lot with the numbers 11, 27, 29 and 14 painted on them. They, too, are still in the mix. Are suitors. In hot pursuit. Most have been here before, but as the reigning knight in this quest, you have first crack at trying your hand. Opening this door is like trying to extract Excalibur from the stone: Only the future champion can.

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The handle is iron and exquisitely carved with dolphins and cupidon, horseshoes and dice, rounded at the top by a pair of naked breasts.

You pause and sigh once again, unsure of yourself. So much have hung in the balance this year, more than before. You have a kid now. There is a cost to this. Are you still willing to pay the price?

Gripping the handle, it’s cold, colder than the depths of the sea crashing wildly twenty yards away. Are you sure, are you sure?

You begin to pull.

The next offshore wave rises to an impossible height – 20, 40, 100 feet? You can’t see it, but you feel its tense breathless stretch as the wave reaches full height, as if the graze the the dreamy porches of the moon:

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And begins to fall as you pull with all your strength.

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Note: An  earlier post, “Here Comes the Flood,” used this same fantasia from the midpoint of the season, which wasn’t going as well for Johnson.

He’s Gone Away


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Pacific sunset by Timm O’Cobhthaigh (d. 4/18/2008)

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Some songs linger like a dinner guest who keeps you up past midnight, overstaying their welcome like a country mile. Who hasn’t had some inane ditty cloying their ear for hours, caught in a feedback loop that will drive you insane? One such ditty that’s been driving me nuts of late is George Constanza’s version of “Believe it or Not (I’m Walking on Air)” which he sang into his telephone recorder in “The Susie Episode” of Seinfeld. The episode aired on Feb. 13, 1997, yet plays on in eternal syndication:

Believe it or not, George isn’t at home.
Please leave a message at the beep.
I must be out, or I’d pick up the phone.
Where could I be?
Believe it or not, I’m not home!

Funny every time I see it, but the stickiness a song you didn’t mean to hold on to can make you feel sick. The three hundredth repeat of “Believe it or not, George isn’t at home” begins to tale on the bad-trip affect of “Helter Skelter” with similar fusting of the temperament. Where could George be? The question won’t stop repeating itself, a decade after he had any fresh life on TV.

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Other songs we invite into our ears and savor the way they haunt us, growing a strange garden of sound we tend achingly because they have strange affinities with something in our heart, or something there we’ve lost. These songs provide a deep mood for the day. They’re like a ghost who comes out each night to stand by a well for reasons we’ll never know. A song can have a long history, taken up by many voices over the generations, coming to our ears with only the distance traveled in their resonance and ennui.

“He’s Gone Away,” by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, has become such a song in my ear of late. It’s from their 1996 collaboration Beyond the Missouri Sky. (See the end of this post for a link to this song.)

Bassist Haden remembered his mother singing “He’s Gone Away” in their Haden family radio show in the 1940’s, under the older name of the traditional folk song “The Railroad Man:”

I’m goin’ away for to stay a little while,
But I’m comin’ back if I go ten thousand miles.
Oh, who will tie your shoes ?
And who will glove your hands?
And who will kiss your ruby lips when I am gone?

Oh, it’s pappy’ll tie my shoes,
And mammy’ll glove my hands,
And you will kiss mg ruby lips when you come back!

Oh, he’s gone, he’s gone away,
For to stay a little while;
But he’s comin’ back if he goes ten thousand miles.

The singer “He’s Gone Away” is the wife or lover of a railroad man-any guy who’s work takes him far from home, really–and the song is heavy with the knowledge of that distance and its peril, crossed by the heart’s faith that love always comes home.

It’s an immigrant song if you think about it, sung in the voice of the soul that’s left behind, to tend the fires for long years waiting for love to return and stay for good. It’s also a song for wives whose husbands work in dangerous trade.  “He’s Gone Away” carries the brutal fact that many husbands and lovers do not return from their work day-rail men, sailors, soldiers, drivers, cops, miners, even commuters.

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Commuting home through Apopka, FL, 5/2005. I’ve made the same 50-mile circuit on the Orange Blossom Trail for 14 years now.

“He’s Gone Away” as performed by Haden and Metheny is purely instrumental – purely on the bass and guitar which developed and elaborated and formed the long roads of their careers, separate for decades until they decided they both wanted a way of coming home.

Pat Metheny writes about his collaboration with Haden:

Missouri. For me, as a kid growing up there, it was a place to dream. A place to sit out in the backyard and consider the possibilities of life and music while practicing as many hours as I could stay awake, staring out into those vast, midwestern spaces. But as much as I loved it there, it was also filled with a restlessness and curiosity about the whole world that I knew existed beyond that Missouri sky.

Charlie and I both grew up in small towns in Missouri, me in Lee’s Summit, and Charlie, about 18 years earlier, down in Forsyth, about 100 miles due south, off highway 71. Whether or not that coincidence of geography has played a part n the rapport that Charlie and I have developed in our years of playing together, I don’t really know. But I do know that we share a lot of the same aspirations about what music can be, and especially the open attitude and curiosity that I believe we’ve both retained from growing up as musicians who filled the hours of our formative years dreaming about music out there in the heartland of America.

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Like the rest of the songs on Beyond the Missouri Sky, “He’s Gone Away” is heavy with memory, a moment in the present which manages to gather up the fullness of the past – not only a personal one (think of Pat Metheny as a boy playing his guitar in a Missouri back yard, wondering how his far his music will take him) —  but a collective one, as the traditional folk song which has on its uppermost layer a Depression-era song about working the railroads and travels back and  down from there, picking up pieces of other migrant work, and immigrant songs, and love songs from a homeland lost long ago.

And when I hear “He’s Gone Away,” the yearning these two musician created in the hallows of that song offers me a space, too, to remember, to feel a depth, to yearn and grieve and believe.

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“Coastal Sunset,” Timm O’Cobthaigh.s

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I don’t know why it took me till now to get a hold of Beyond the Missouri Sky; the album’s been around for nearly 14 years. I used to be a big Pat Metheny fan and then drifted off, drawn to by his keyboardist Lyle Mays, who in turn led me to Bill Evans, possible the most lyrical, romantic, evansescent jazz pianist of our age.

When I inherited my younger brother’s laptop after he died a of couple years ago, I discovered, by perusing his iTunes library, that he, too, was a Pat Metheny fan. The last songs he played on his iTunes that day was Metheny’s As Witchita Falls, So Falls Witchita album, an album I spun endlessly back in 1981 when it came out. One of the songs on that album is “September Fifteenth,” which turns out to be a tribute to Bill Evans written by Lyle Mays, Evans having died on that day in 1980. (If you want see a video of the performance of this song by Metheny and Lyle Mays, see the end of this post)

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Bill Evans performing with his trio at the Gouvy Jazz Festival in Gouvy, Belgium, on August 3, 1980 – six weeks before he died.

Moody, sad, with Metheny’s acoustic guitar slow and deep and soulful, accompanied by Mays on acoustic piano: It affected me most deeply back in 1981 as I was recovering from a busted-up relationship. My brother, ironically, was recovering at that time from a near-fatal car accident – he died on the operating table but was brought back, at 18, to live another 26 years.

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Timm in 1981 near Jasckson Hole, Wyoming, soon after he’d been released from the hospital after nearly being killed when he was thrown  from the back of  a VW bug that had been hit from behind by a speeding pickup truck. He was 18 at the time.

“September Fifteenth”” was one of the last songs my brother listened to on April 18, 2008, the day he had his fatal heart attack. According to his girlfriend at the time, he was probably at Starbucks near his job, sipping on a Café Americano and checking things out online, making plans for their weekend and listening to the tracks. I see my brother there, about a usual day that had a catastrophic end to it, none of that yet visible to him. I listen to “He’s Gone Away” and see him, in my mind’s eye, logging off and heading out the door into the blinding spring light of eternity.

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Rusty Wallace goes airbone at Talladega in 1993.

Rusty Wallace got into some awful wrecks during his NASCAR career. The first big one was in 1983, when he barrel-rolled out of turn 2 at Daytona. “I shook that off as a weird deal and it wouldn’t happen again the rest of my life,” he says. But it did, and twice in 1993 (when Wallace had 10 wins), with his car going airborne at both Daytona and Talladega.

Wallace, who won the 1989 NASCAR Cup Series championship, laughs off those accidents. But it was another thing last weekend when he watched his youngest son Steve get caught in 4-wide traffic coming out of Turn 3 of the Nashville 300 Nationwide Series race on April 3 and plow head-on into the wall, completely destroying the car.

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Steve Wallace wrecks in the Nashville 300 on April 3.

Rusty, who normally covers the events for ESPN, was off that weekend, but he was there to watch his son race, and when he saw the wreck, his heart sunk in his chest.

“I haven’t told anybody this, but when I saw that car hit the wall, it reminded me identical to Dale Earnhardt’s crash,” Wallace said. (Wallace’s car was right behind Earnhardt’s coming out of Turn 3 of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 when the No. 3 Chevrolet suddenly swung down and made contact with Sterling Martin, causing Earnhardt to turn sharply to the left and then right, up into the wall for the fatal hit.) “Steven’s car hung a dead right and hit the wall head on.

“It broke the water pump off it and the oiling system. It put the tires back into the firewall. It really scared me because it was a huge, huge hit, head on at 160 miles per hour.”

(source: Godwin Kelly, Daytona Beach News-Journal “Rusty feeling wrecks again watching son race” April 7, 2010)

Fortunately for Steve Wallace – and his father Rusty – the son only suffered a broken foot from the wreck. The 2001 Earnhardt wreck killed the seven-time NASCAR upon impact. While Michael Waltrip raced past to claim the checkered flag to claim his first victory, teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was close behind.

Son and father, father and son: The drama of Dale Earnhardt’s death is ten years old now, but like the cars which go around and round on great oval tracks, the pathos of it never leaves.

And let us not forget the wives and girlfriends who watch the races tensely from the pits. Many remember the warm embrace Dale Earnhardt gave his wife Teresa before climbing into the 03 to race in the 2001 Daytona 500. Who knew it would be their last?

Steve Wallace’s wreck on April 3 reminds us all how close the edge truly is– safe car or not–between climbing out of a car at race’s finish and riding off the edge of our world and into the next. Tom Baldwin Sr., Kenny Irwin Jr., Adam Petty, Neil Bonnett, Clifford Allision, J.D. McDuffie, Rick Baldwin, Tiny Lund, Larry Smith, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherley, Lou Figaro – all of these drivers were killed on the track in NASCAR’s premier racing series, with Daytona International Speedway claiming the lion’s share of ghosts (11 fatalities, followed by Charlotte Motor Speedway with seven).

Steve Wallace will get back behind the wheel to race the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 in Phoenix on April 9. (Update: he finished 30th.) Every driver who’s walked away from a bad crash has had to shake off closeness of death and challenge it once again. It’s one thing for them, but another for kids and spouses and parents watching them race. When Michael McDowell crashed during practice for the Samsung 500 in Texas in 2008, he ended up barrel-rolling eight times before coming to a stop. ” My heart stopped,” said Jami McDowell, who began dating McDowell when they were 15 years old. “It was pretty terrifying for me to watch, but Mike’s always taught me that the thing not to do in a bad situation is panic. So I tried to remain calm.”

“It’s different now when he gets in the car. I just make sure I get a hug and a kiss in there, and just say a prayer.”

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Michael McDowell’s horrific 2008 wreck during practice for the 2008 race in Texas;   McDowell with wife Jami.

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Self-portrait of  Timm hiking by the Rogue River in Oregon.

Maybe songs come when the listener is ready for them. “He’s Gone Away” from “Beyond The Missouri Sky” reminds me so much of my brother Timm, not just for the title but for its slow, low, roads-weary mood. Timm was a guitar player like I was, and he was also a wanderer, traveling away from his family of birth to make a life on the opposite coast in Oregon. I too moved West decades ago, but somehow managed to find my way back home.

Love-or lack of it-can keep us ever movin’ on. William Kennedy’s 1983 novel Ironweed (which was made into a movie in 1987 starring Jack Nichbolson) is about the hard permanence of the road when you go so far down it. Set in the Great Depression, Francis Phelan is former major-league third baseman whose talent for running translates into a compulsion for running away when he abandons his family in Albany, New York, after accidentally dropping and killing his son while he may have been drunk. Now an alcoholic vagrant, Phelan wanders the hobo camps of the Depression’s underworld, filled with self-contempt and guilt. At one point towards the story’s end, he calls on his old family – his wife hardly recognizes him – and though she has forgiven him and pleads with him to stay, Phelan cannot – he can only keep on keepin’ on down that dusty, deranged, fatal tracks, riding the cars, running from the spectre of his own heart.

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Jack Nicholson (right) in “Ironweed.”

In the months of shock and grief after Timm’s sudden death, it wasn’t “September Fifteenth” that haunted me so much as another tune, “Forgiven” by Chris Botti, one of the most-played songs on Timm’s iTunes library. For some reason listening to “Forgiven” I felt I was getting the exact pitch of my younger brother’s feeling. It’s as song, as I contemplate what I feel listening to it, about gambling all on love and losing and finding redemption for exactly that.

Every night
All the years are passing through me
Was I wrong?
‘Cause,
When you find out
Love is blind, then it’s too late
You can’t do anything

These are the chances we take
Reasons that we can’t explain
Follow your heart everyday
Pray it’ll be forgiven

Don’t let go
Until all your days are broken
We were one
Now I’m standing
In the rain and you are gone
I gave up everything

These are the chances we take
Reasons that we can’t explain
Follow your heart everyday
Pray it’ll be forgiven

(To hear the song, see the link at the end of this post)

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Jonatha Brooke provides the  vocal to Chris Botti’s “Forgiven.” She sounds like your own heart’s eternal longing.

“Forgiven” was all about the wronged, crazy, inept loves my younger brother attempted; fortunately, in the end he seemed to be settling down, had been dating the same woman for several years and even talked of marriage.

“Forgiven” is about living from the heart, risky business for anyone but especially for my brother, given all the damage of his past (as the youngest kid, he got lost in the shuffle, suffered sexual abuse and took our parents’ breakup especially hard.) Yet Timm survived all that – he was 16 years sober when he died, a solid member of Alcoholics Anonymous, sang in his church choir and loved photography, hoping to make a decent living as a freelance shooter. “Beauty heals” was his motto, and some of his pix had exactly the power to do that.

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A photo of Crater Lake at the national park in southern Oregon in Summer 2007, not far from where Timm lived. Timm was especially gifted at taking photos of waterfalls and lakes, capturing somehow in them both the force and depth of the heart.

I still feel a deep hollow place in my where my younger brother used to live when I hear “Forgiven,” but somehow “He’s Gone Away” has replaced it as the lead song in my conversation with of Timm, of inspiring aching low feelings of loss and sadness, holding on to something of him  now that he’s long gone. The song is something older, more traditional; Metheny is a guitar player we both venerated, so the notes he plays on the song seem to sing to both of us, from either side of life. When I listen to “He’s Gone Away,” I feel like a beloved waiting for her man to eventually return, unwilling to believe he won’t, singing “he’s coming home” over the title of the song, over and over, in the manner that we don’t or can’t let the dead go on to their oblivion. After two years, I still don’t believe he’s gone. Surely his me-shaped frame will some through that door, with his goofy smile, apologizing for the ruse which has sent us all through such a vicious loop.

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Timm and I as guitar players, back in the day (both pix are from the 80s and were taken at diferent times by our mother. In all the years, Timm and I only played together a couple of times — it was difficult, like playing with a skewed version of yourself . Yet the duet continues, all the more so now.

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There is something hopeless and lost about the unaccounted, unfound dead. Something in us needs to see our beloved in order to say a proper goodbye. On April 8, police told the parents of Jennifer Kesse that they have no more leads to follow up on the young woman’s disappearance four years ago. The family vows to search on their own and not give up until Jennifer is found – dead or alive.

“Closure is everything,” Drew Kesse, Jennifer’s father, said. “To be in limbo, you can’t even call it hell. There’s not even a word for it.”

The family maintains a Web site, jenniferkesse.com. A reward of as much as $15,000 is being offered. The Kesses intend to do what they can to find Jennifer, even if that means locating fragments of her body.

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Mother Drew Kesse said finding and prosecuting the person responsible for her disappearance isn’t important. “I want my daughter to be found in any way, shape or form so my family can celebrate her and move on,” she said. “You can’t move on until you have answers.”

About 2,300 Americans are reported missing every day-in 2010 more than 1,000,000 missing persons will be registered-yet as of December 1, 2007, only 105,299 missing person cases were considered “active.” The same year, only 15 percent of the missing persons cases were resolved.

It’s estimated that ten percent of missing persons cases never return home.

There are a lot of reasons why people are lost. About half of the roughly 800,000 missing juvenile cases in 2001 involved runaways, and another 200,000 were classified as family abductions related to domestic or custody disputes. Among missing adults, about one-sixth have psychiatric problems. Young men, people with drug or alcohol addictions and elderly citizens suffering from dementia make up other significant subgroups of missing adults.

But there are no good ones why so many are never found. Forgotten, stranded, ill, captured, institutionalized, dead — or simply moved on, never looking back – none of these provide ground to stand on for those left behind.

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A picture Jennifer Kesse’s purse, which disappeared with Jennifer on January 24, 2006. Her family posted the picture in the hopes that finding it might lead to Jennifer or her remains.

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No closure. There’s something about lack of enough finality which keeps us from being able to get beyond living in that loss.

But I think those people who think they can’t go on for lack of closure  are mistaken. I know what happened to my brother. I have copies of reports from the doctor he was seeing in his final months, and all of the records from Salem Hospital where he was taken after calling 911. He’d been out running on the evening of April 17. It was spring in Salem and beautiful, unseasonably warm. Everything was blooming. He’d had some difficulty with blood pressure in recent years but shrugged it off. In January, while out running, he’d felt something catch in his chest; he had described it to a doctor as if a “hole” had been cut into his lung. His doctor–actually an osteopath–thought it might have allergies and prescribed Singular. A chest CAT scan was scheduled in March, but Timm cancelled the appointment because he was feeling better. Timm was also taking Ritalin for attention problems from his car accident 28 years before. He may have been taking a lot of Ritalin, since he lost a lot of weight in his last year.

When Timm got back from his run he started having chest pains and difficulty breathing. He toughed it out for four hours (not even mentioning his difficulty when he talked that night with his best friend Ken briefly on his cell phone) before calling an ambulance. He wasn’t in bad shape when the EMTs arrived, but en route to the hospital he went into cardiac arrest and lost consciousness. Defibrillation paddles were applied twice; by the time he reached the hospital he was semi-conscious and could talk in incomplete sentences. A chest x-ray was ordered that suggested he may have had a form of pneumonia (so that original doctor may have been right). They also showed that a clot had massed in his anterior descending artery. Artery-reopening stents were injected into his femoral artery and the clot was largely dispelled, but there was damage to the anterior wall of Timm’s heart that couldn’t be repaired. Timm’s vitals kept failing and twice he went into Code Blue. The defrib paddles were applied a dozen more times and an attempt was made to insert an angioplasty balloon to reinforce the stents in the anterior descending artery: But by them Timm’s vitals were so low that no further attempts were made to revive him. My brother was declared dead at 2:55 a.m. Friday, April 18, 2008.

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A self-portrait of Timm from 2003, which he used on a Christmas card sent to family members living all over the opposite coast. No doubt how and where he died–but that doesn’t mean there’s closure. Images and songs still  haunt.

I know how Timm died. I have enough reportage to visualize it clearly. But the only closure I feel is the slow deadening of pain over time, as my memory of his living presence slowly fades into oblivion. But knowing does not allow closure. Not when I think of him alone on a gurney in a hospital ER, thrashing some at the restraints for a moment and then going so very still. I saw his body a couple days later at the viewing; just his head and neck were showing above a blanket since all of his organs had been harvested. I touched his fine grey hair, cupped the curve of his head, ran my fingers over his cool face. I got my chance to say goodbye; alone with him, I cried and apologized for having been a lousy, indifferent brother to him. As a too-late-amends, I promised to care for his photos and writings and make his life known to others on a memorial site.

I’ve done all of those things, but I do not have closure. I hear “He’s Gone Away” and I can almost feel his breath over my shoulder, his body so close to mine I know its there right behind me. I don’t want closure. I want to hold on to him for as long as I can, like a roadside memorial which is faithfully tended for years, long after most fall into neglect and disappear.

I’m not sure that beauty so much heals as makes the heart evident, for all of its wounds and happiness, a bittersweet savor which makes “He’s Gone Away” so anthemic in my ear, as if I’ll hear my brother’s voice – so much like my own that I startled the shit out his girlfriend, calling to her in the church parking lot before the memorial service out in Oregon — flowing forever there.

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Timm was especially gifted at taking pictures of waterfalls. Or simply he loved them, because there are dozens of waterfall pictures in his archives.

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“The Cold Sea’s Embrace” by Patrick O’Hearn is another tune I found in the iTunes library on my dead brother’s laptop, and it works hard into my theme. The song is from O’Hearn’s 2001 album “So Flows the Current,” and if there is ever a musical setting for death at sea, this is it. (There’s a link to the track at the end of this post)

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Patrick O’Hearn and the cold, cold sea.

In a 2001 poem, I imagined all of that great abyss spread for miles beneath one’s feet in “The wreck of the Indianapolis”

Two torpedoes
struck us amidships
and then we were
in the water,
800 orphans
thrown to the ocean
like a thimble of fates.

Days we prayed for
cool nights, nights we
cursed our icy beds.
The sky empty and
wild, a gate for souls
opening from below.

On the second day
the sharks found us
and fed with impunity.
One guy a few yards
from me was dragged
down in a churn
of bubbles. He floated
back up a few minutes
later, freed of his guts,

his eyes dreaming
white horizons.

On the third day
only 300 of us were left.
Man, I was ready
to let go of the clinging,
just ladder on down
that mile or two
of black falling.

A plane approached in
the sky. Some swam
toward it, others
let go right then,
winnowed from us
by some invisible calm.

I survived the wreck
of the Indianopolis,
one of the last pulled
that day from death’s drink.
Every night for
60 years I’ve gone
to sleep falling back
into that sea’s dark mouth,
ready at last to begin.

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The USS Indianapolis. On July 30, 1945, shortly after delivering critical parts for the first atomic bomb used combat to the U.S. air base at Tinian, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. inking in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 crew aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remaining crew of 800 faced exposure, dehydration and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating with few lifeboats and almost no food or water. The Navy learned of the sinking when survivors were spotted four days later by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol. Only 316 sailors survived. The Indianapolis was one of the last U.S. ships sunk in the war.

There are some 2 million shipwrecks at the bottom of the seven seas. The abyss is populated with our dead, or some remnant of them (nothing but shoes now scattered around the wreck of the Titanic). As a kid my imagination was enthralled and horrified by the notion of drifting miles downward into the sea’s cold embrace: no hope of rescue, no salvation by man or God, simply the descent, become a shrinking shadow in an immensity of darkness, the sea itself become a dimming sky.

Sometimes the sea remits part of her immense receipt. On March 19, the body of a boy washed up on a remote shore near Tacoma, Washington, and was identified as 8-year old Azriel Carver, who disappeared along with his 29-year old mother Shantina Smiley the week before. So far, the sea has kept the mother. In February 2008, the semi-naked body of a 15-year-old British schoolgirl was found lying face down in the waves on a popular tourist beach in Goa, India. She had been plied with drugs, raped and then left in the shallow water to drown by two local men.

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British schoolgirl Scarlett Keeling’s drugged and violated body washed up on the shore of a beach in Goa, India.

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Debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded soon after launch in January 1996, still washes up on the beaches of Brevard County, FL.

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This barnacle-encrusted piece of the Challenger’s left wing washed up on Cocoa Beach in 2007. It’s reckoned that about 55 percent of the Challenger and five percent of the cabin crew are still laying on the ocean floor.

“It brings things back,” said Bruce Jarvis of these occasional beachings. Jarvis is the father of astronaut Gregory Jarvis who died in the accident. “It’s like having a bad wound and you’ve got a scab. It’s like somebody picking at the scab.” Marvin Resnick, father of Challenger Judith Resnick, said the discovery brought back painful memories. But he said: “It doesn’t cause me heartache as much as it did. You never forget it, but you don’t let it rule your whole life.”

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Liken the cold sea’s embrace to the viscous placenta of grief attending the community of Montcoal, West Virigina. On Monday afternoon, April 5, the mine, which had been repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas, exploded during a shift change, killing 25 people in the country’s deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century. Survivors described their shirts being blown off by the force of the blast, which turned rail lines and heavy equipment into bent and twisted wreckage that one survivor said looked like pretzels. Four miners were unaccounted for and rescue attempts so far have been foiled by the overwhelming presence of methane gas in the chambers below. The mine had been cited been cited for 1,342 safety violations since 2005, but without a union, workers have had little power to get the company to address the problems.

One member of that community, Edith Willingham, started to worry early. It was just after 5 p.m. on Monday and her husband, Benny, had not called on his way home from the mines, as he always did.

Immediately suspecting the worst, Ms. Willingham turned on the news.

“This is what every coal miner’s wife fears,” said Linda Neal, a family friend sitting beside Ms. Willingham on Tuesday morning. “You see them go to work, and then they are gone.”

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On Wednesday night, residents of Cabin Creek, West Virigina, gathered in a little league playing field to hold a candlelight vigil for the souls of Timmy Davis, Sr. and his two nephews Cory Davis and Josh Napper. All three were killed in the explosion Monday at the Upper Big Branch Mine and were among the first of the 25 killed to be identified. West Virginia governor Joe Manchin and his wife Gayle were there for the vigil and  spoke to the crowd. “God has a plan,” the Governor said. “We’re not able to help write that script or be part of that plan, but I guarantee you He has a plan for us, and you have to believe.”

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Cindy Davis, the mother of deceased coal miner Cory Davis, is greeted by members of the community Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at a candlelight vigil in Cabin Creek, W.Va. Davis also lost a brother-in-law Timmy Davis Sr. and nephew Josh Napper who were among the 25 miners killed on Monday at an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, W.Va. (Photo: Getty Images)

Coal mining has always been hazardous; the list of disasters goes on for a long country mile. Plenty can go wrong: there are mine wall failures and vehicle collisions; workers can suffocate from gas poisoning and succumb to roof collapse and gas explosions. Firedamp explosions can trigger the much more dangerous coal dust explosions, which can engulf an entire pit. While most of these risks can be greatly reduced in modern mines, mining operations remain worker-unfriendly and union-busting activities by the corporations have left miners vulnerable to accidents like the one at Montcoal.

Things were a lot worse here in the past.  In 1907 there were 8 coal mine disasters, including  history’s worst — the Monongah, WV coal mine explosion, which claimed 362 lives and impelled Congress to created the Bureau of Mines. In 1909 there were 20 separate disasters, including the Cherry Mine fire in Illinois, which claimed 259 miners; the Stag Canyon No. 2 mine explosion in Dawson, New Mexico killed 263 in 1913.

Many innovations since have made mining much safer, yet still the chances of a miner getting killed in a mine accident is about the same as that of one of us dying in a car accident.

Because mining is so dangerous and difficult, miners are a hard lot, often driven to their profession because there’s little other good paying work around. Coal miners, on average, made more than $23 an hour, or about $1,140 per week, in 2008, the last year for which the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has published data. That compares with an average wage in Raleigh County, W.Va., of $687 a week.

In 2008, according to public filings, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was paid $11.2 million in salary, bonuses and other benefits, up from $5.3 million in 2006.

Miners themselves have to maintain a certain attitude about their jobs. Mining is an adventure-filled job, they say, different on every shift. The crews are fraternities whose members watch out for one another even as they tease and play pranks, like greasing the controls of a piece of machinery when the operator is not looking. Joking aside, a certain amount of rationalization is required before one can spend each day embedded in a mountain of rock, chipping away at it from the inside. Accidents can happen on any job, some miners say. Others say their lives are in God’s hands. Still others simply push thoughts of danger to the back of their mind.

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Legless former coal miner.

For loved ones back home, keeping a good attitude is more difficult. Stephanie Pennington of Raleigh County, West Virgina is quick to acknowledge that her family lives well, with a three-bedroom home and a 2007 Dodge Durango, its rear window studded with decals of a pick and shovel, a crawling man with a headlamp, and the legend “WV Coal Miner’s Wife.”

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Stephanie Penningon.

But each night when her husband, Robert Shawn Pennington, leaves for the night shift at the ICG Beckley coal mine, she gathers her three children to pray. “I don’t sleep until I hear that key in the door every morning,” Ms. Pennington, 29, said. For her family, the anxiety spans the generations. Mr. Pennington’s father was crushed to death in the old Beckley mine while his mother was six weeks pregnant with him.

“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn’s country hit, tells the story of her life growing up “in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler”, while her father, Melvin “Ted” Webb, worked all night in the Van Lear coal mine. The song depicts the real story of Lynn’s life growing up in rural Kentucky, and discusses how she and her seven siblings lived off of a coal miner’s salary (“Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner’s pay”), and that her father always made sure there was love in the Webb household.

… Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a coal miner’s pay
Mama scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day
I’ve seen her fingers bleed
To complain there was no need
She’d smile in Mama’s understanding way

In the summertime we didn’t have shoes to wear
But in the wintertime we’d all get a brand new pair
From a mail-order catalogue, money made by selling a hog
Daddy always seemed to get the money somewhere

I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter
I remember well, the well where I drew water
The work we done was hard
At night we’d sleep, cause we were tired
I never thought I’d ever leave Butcher Holler

Well a lot of things have changed, since way back when
And it’s so good to be back home again
Not much left but the floor
Nothing lives here anymore
Just a memory of a coal miner’s daughter

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Loretta Lynn and her childhood home in Butcher Holler, West Virginia.

The song made it up to No. 1 on Billboard Hot Country Singles list for a week in December 1970. Memory may still have been fresh of the Nov. 20, 1968 explosion in the Consol No. 9 mine north of Mannington, West Virginia. The explosion was large enough to be felt 12 miles away in Farmington. At the time, 99 miners were in the mine,  and 21 managed to escape, but efforts to get to the remaining 78 miners failed. With fires burning out of control below, the mine was sealed ten days later with concrete. In September of the next year, the mine was unsealed in an attempt to retrieve the bodies of the dead. Efforts continued for ten years; by April 1978, 59 of the 78 bodies had been recovered. Unable to retrieve the remaining 19, the mine was permanently sealed.

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Fire and smoke pours from the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia following an explosion on Nov. 20, 1968.

Despite tougher federal laws passed in 2006 to investigators to crack down on mines that have persistent violations, mine operators have found news ways of circumventing the law.  Throughout last year, the Montcoal mine, was cited for failing to conduct inspections that would have spotted dangerous piles of coal dust and other unsafe conditions. Massey appealed at least 37 of the 50 citations for serious safety violations that it received last year.

At a hearing in February, Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, complained that the growing number of appeals by coal companies threatened to “render the federal efforts to hold mine operators accountable meaningless.” Mining safety experts have expressed similar concerns.

One in four citations issued against coal mines are now appealed by operators – three times the appeal rate before the law, according to regulators. The result is a backlog of 18,000 pending appeals and $210 million in contested penalties.

The appeals “are also allowing miners, in some cases the worst operators, to escape liability for which they are in fact liable and continue to put miners in harm’s way,” Mr. Miller said at the hearing.

People associated with Massey Energy (owner of the Montcoal mine), and the company’s political action committee, have donated more than $300,000 to federal candidates since 1990, with 91 percent of the money going to Republicans. according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington.

So mine operators continue to dodge and miners continue to be devoured by the mouth of the deep dark earth. Perhaps it’s just nature’s way that the powerless are the natural fuel of the rich; or rather, it’s our human nature’s way. But let me finish this passage with an account from the son of a miner who survived the 1968 Farmingham disaster:

Both of my grandfathers worked in the coal mines. My father’s father was murdered working to help form the union. My father was about fifteen when my grandfather died. The only thing my father ever said about it was that my grandfather had been hit over the head with I believe a shovel. Something large like that and he probably had a fractured skull. He said that my grandfather was carried home. He was placed in what was called the back bedroom and he said how hard it was to be a young boy and go into the room and see his father and his father didn’t know who he was. I think my grandfather lived for probably three or four days and then he died.

My grandmother had six children which she raised all alone. My father studied at night and loaded coal cars. He was the only one I think in his family of six children who graduated from high school.

Regarding the explosion that happened in ’68, my father had been called out that morning. At that time he worked as a mechanic. He worked outside so we always felt much safer. I think he was working on one of the fans. If you are familiar with the engine system the fans pull in good air and get the bad air out. My father talked about when the mine explosion occurred he was walking away from the fan. He was probably fifty or one hundred yards away when it exploded. Flames came out through the fan and he was knocked down.

I don’t think my father was ever quite the same. I guess still lying down he looked around and he could see it. All this smoke and even flames I think. I think I know that smoke was coming out and I think he was probobly just so stunned that he laid there for a while. Wen those things happen you don’t know what to do. Everthing sort of stopped. For a year re-lived that moment of running, hearing that noise, and when he would talk about the noise… about the explosion it was just something that was incredibly loud, just a huge boom! And then the trembling. When he fell flat on the ground, he could feel the ground trembling in his chest.

I’m sure he replayed this. That he kept hearing it. He kept hearing it over and over and over and over again. Reliving it… It must have been very sad to relive something like that that’s so painful. That’s when he would cry. The tears would just come and that was very unusual because the just did not cry. My father was a very strong man. My father did not believe that men cried and men of his generation felt that way. You see it now with older men. Elderly men maybe in their 80s will tell you that men don’t cry.

It’s just not a manly thing to do, but he would relive the moment and when he would tell you about driving away hurt, running, and getting in the truck and driving away then we would start again with comming out you know and it was almost like he could see this on a tape player and it just played over and over and over. For the longest time he couldn’t get away from it. He did not go out of the house. He stayed in.

When he finally went back to work it was his salvation. My father loved working. He really did. He never would admit that but he truly did. He was a workaholic and a bit of a crumugeon. He was a grumpy man and he gradually came out of this and I think going back to work helped.

(Farmingham) was a wonderful place to grow up. I would not change a thing. Those people were very good to me and it was like having a hundred set of parents. People who genuinely celebrated each others happiness or sadness. It was just a horrible time, but you know sometimes the worst of times brings out the best in people. When awful things happen that’s when we find out what’s really important and that people are really what matters and the people that we love and sometimes don’t appreciate until they’re gone.

That’s why remembering these folks who have died is so important. They don’t die. When we talk about them and we remember them they’re not dead. They’re not just a name on a list. They belong to someone. They’re someone’s child, brother, husband. They mattered and they’re lives ended so quickly and without any notice at all. When (the) Sago (mine disaster in 2006) happened, I sent an email to their minister. I said sometimes it’s difficult for people to say I know how you feel ,but I do. I really do. I know how helpless you feel and you wonder why these things happen and why good people died.

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A park in Medford, OR, taken by Timm a month before he  died.

I write this post in the mood of a song, a song which for odd reasons has a head and a tail quite different from each other. Up front, there’s a faith in “He’s Gone Away” which is akin to “Amazing Grace,” sure as God’s grace, a note which , which would be toxically ironic given its circumstance except that it rises from a heart which never gives up faith. Strangely, when I think of the song, the title “He’s Coming Home” comes first to mind, not “He’s Gone Away”: and the mood is spiritual, thick with prescient of eternal homecomings, that feeling that he is not so much coming home to us as that one day we will join him in the hills of the everlasting. “Amazing Grace” becomes “Michael, Row the Boats Ashore,” St. Michael the Ferryman of Souls bringing us all home in the end

As “He’s Gone Away” somehow merges with “He’s Coming Home” in the blurry subconscious ear where thought and feeling merge, so does the Metheny-Haden collaboration “Beyond the Missouri Sky” weirdly mixes with the title “Under the Missouri Sky.” I keep thinking the album is titled the latter, though I know it’s the other way around. Fused together, the two album titles speak the truth I’m getting at, about something gone but here, lost but found: there’s some kind of amazing grace at work here, profoundly deep and old perhaps, profoundly sad, profoundly touched by a beauty which cannot be lost.

Does grief make unseen connections between a broken and fulfilled heart? “He’s Gone Away” is similar, on the album, to the tune “The Moon is A Harsh Mistress,” a Jim Webb song that Joe Cocker played for Haden years ago. It’s all instrumental, but the lyrics to the original goes,

See her HOW she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine

And lord it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pine
And then the darkness fell
The moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face, yes I did
And I tripped and I missed my star
And I fell and fell alone
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own

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Same mount where Timm sat for his self-portrait, attended now by his moon.

Hard to call your own: the moon owns its lucence no more than we do our hearts; we both derive our ignition from elsewhere – the light of the sun, the warmth of a lover’s smile, our faces reflected in her eyes.

There is magic in the moon; madness, too. The pre-Enlightenment doctor Paracelsus believed that the rays of the moon contained harmful elements in them called ens, and to be basted for too long in moonlight was to fall sway to these lead-hearted spiritual louts.

Grief is a form of mood-moon-madness. In her memoir,”The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion recounts how, when her daughter was comatose in a hospital bed, she watched her husband John Gregory Dunne suddenly die of a heart attack. “Grief when it comes, it is nothing we expect it to be,” she writes. For a period – the “year” of the title – Didion finds herself enduring an onslaught of grief’s symptoms–empty depression, assaulting waves of emotion, fear of open spaces, the terrors of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the strangest affect of all was the power of her denial, believing that her husband had not died but was, after all, waiting for her somewhere just out of sight. She cannot throw out certain of Dunne’s shoes, clinging to the stubborn belief that he will need them. The accompanying fear is that by throwing the shoes out she really will kill him. This “magical thinking” disorder has been well-documented in the psychological literature, but no one but Didion makes it such a commanding emotional fact. Toward the end of that year, she observes, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” It is the very far coastline of human experience which borders what Hamlet called “that bourne from which no traveler returns.”

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The Didion family in happier times – times which have the power to haunt.

Yes, the moon is a harsh mistress. So is life. So is the heart, and so is its grief.

And yet they are also indescribably beautiful, too.

Perhaps because so. “Grief makes the heart apparent as sudden happiness can,” wrote the poet Jack Gilbert, whose wife Michiko died of cancer some years ago. In a later poem, as the poet enters his ninth decade, he looks back on the Pittsburgh of his childhood as a tough miner’s metaphor for getting something done in the heart.

A Taste for Grit and Whatever

More and more it is the incidental that makes
him yearn, and he worries about that.
Why should the single railroad tracks
curving away into the bare December trees
and no houses matter? And why is it
the defeated he trusts? Is it because
Pittsburgh is still tangled in him that he
has the picture on his wall of God’s head
torn apart by jungle roots? Maybe
growing up in that brutal city left him
with a taste for grit and whatever it was
he saw in the titanic rusting steel mills.
It might be the reason he finally moved out
of Paris. Perhaps it is the scale
of those long ago winters that makes him
restless when people laugh a lot.
Why the erotic matters so much. Not as
pleasure but a way to get to something darker.
Hunting down the soul, searching out the iron
of Heaven when the work is getting done.

— from “Refusing Heaven” (2005)

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Jack Gilbert, and a view of Pittsburgh in 1951.

It makes you wonder if a heart is better off never having been mangled by yearning and love and beauty, or if it can only sleep until it is slapped awake by next hope; if the heart is durable because it breaks, re-forming itself in the wake of grief to become something greater and deeper.

I’m not sure. Back in 2002 when I was out in Portland for a business trip, I found, in a bookstore, a copy of Scottish Sea Stories selected by Glen Murray. The penultimate tale is Christopher Rush’s “The Woman and the Waves,” and it’s a hard, hard story of a woman who grows up at the edge of the sea in a fishing community, whose heart takes full force the toll of the cold sea’s embrace.

Her father is a fisherman who “was a kind man and smelled of salt and sunlight” and who “carried the sea in his eyes.” His work was back-breaking and barely brought home enough to feed his family of wife and father and daughter and son. The mother gets pregnant and delivers a stillborn son to the waves. The grandfather is mad with religion and dies of cancer; the father takes his Bible and throws it into the harbor.

One day, the father’s boat Venus is caught in gale fishing off Kingsbams, not far from home and son and father are drowned. The girl and her mother wait for days for the bodies to wash ashore, but “no corpses came to give us that coldest of comforts.” “The sea turned over once and I had lost my father and brother. It was so simple. Yet it was the hardest thing to alter, and to bear.”

Mother and daughter now survive by working for other men, gathering mussels and mending torn nets. “Our movements were without music, joyless as the listless seaweeds waving in the surge. The sea became a weariness.” Two year later, when the girl is 19, the mother slowly died over a winter. Her last words to her daughter is that she waste no time in marrying.

One of the men holding a cord on his mother’s coffin is named John Boynter, and soon after the mother is buried he asks for her hand in marriage. On their wedding night she offers herself to her husband on their bridal bed. After they have consummated the marriage (“There was neither beauty nor pain. It was as simple as shelling a mussel”), the girl lays a long time in the darkness thinking of my father,

… still tossing somewhere on the cold green bed of the ocean bottom, hidden by the coverlets of waves that worried him in whispers. And Alan (her brother who also drowned), bone of his bone, was he still locked in his father’s last embrace? Where were they? Without knowing why, I wept in the secret darkness, and for the first time in my life I wondered what my life was.

They are married just two months when, while her husband is off fishing, a man comes to her door. “I knew the look he wore on his face. I had seen it many times before, on the faces of mothers, wives and sisters. It woven out of the waves.” The man had seen her husband fishing from the shore when a he was suddenly hauled into the sea. A line which was attached to a pot in the water got caught on the butten of his coat and hauled him in, keeping him pinned down til he was drowned. The wife goes outside to view the body, wrapped under a tarp. “His eyes were closed and his expression was white. But the tiredness was gone out of his face. I felt a deep sorrow – he was only eighteen.”

The woman was a widow for two years – working again for other men, mending herring nets -when Davy Keay comes back from a whaling voyage and sweeps her up. He asks her how much she makes working for other men. “Sixpence a day,” I said. “if I work all day at it.” He offers her an alternative, fishing from his pockets

a handful of foreign gold. the coins burned in his palm like the suns of strange countries. He had been among mermaids and monks and winters and whlales  such as I had scarecely dreamed of. I had never seen further than the lights of the Lothians across the Forth, like fallen stars at midnight. Now this man was telling me of the secrets that lay behind the horizon’s brow, and  I was telling him that I would marry him.

Their marriage is happy and woman feels fulfilled for the first time in her life, but all to soon Davy says he is going to do one last season at the whales, enough to earn enough money to pay for his own boat, and come home to stay. She watches him board the Thomas and he shouts and waves to her as the ship goes to sea.

She waits a year and a half for him. He never returns. As she finds out, the whaling voyage is a success until the ship get locked in September ice. One by one the sailors freeze to death, including Davy. The ship is ground to pieces between two icebergs on Christmas Day and sinks. A few survivors walk miles out on the ice until they come upon another ship which bear them and their sad news back to Scotland.

And for many years after that, all I thought about was the lad that had waved to me from the topsail yard, though in my dreams about that stilled young heart, lying so many frozen fathoms deep in the Polar seas, the iceberg the only monument that lay upon his grave. And my heart would grow cold for sorrow.

When she turns thirty she marries a captain ten years her senior and bears him six children. Five of those die in infancy. The surviving son is named David and grows up to sail with his father, only to to drown with him, their boat caught in a sudden gale along with the rest of the fleet. All the boats except her husband’s, The Helen, make it to shore. Then they see the Helen coming in and a shout goes up from the women whose loves are on board that ship.

But even as we shouted we saw the white forest that was flowering around her stern. Over the gunwhales it grew, and over the dark figures huddled on board.

Then there was nothing.

The white forest had withered and the figures were somewhere beneath its ruin, tight in the clutch of those unseen roots that wind to the sea’s bottom. A long cry went up from the shore.

It was the oldest cry in the world.

The bodies were long in coming to the shore.”

For the next ten years, the woman works with the fisher girls, cutting fish.

“That was ten years of cut hands and freezing feet, the gutting troughs by day and a hard cold bed by night. The young girls beside me lay and dreamed of their fisher lads, and marriages in the morning. I reached out my arms to the darkness. There was hunger in my belly and rain in my hair. But I did not know what else to do.

Now seventy, she is nearly blind and her hands are so crippled that she cuts them more often than the fish.

Some summers I walk to th silent green breaker of the graveyard. Winter turns it to a white frozen wave. But I am still waiting for the winter that will take me there, to lie beside my children.

Why am I so old?

At nights I dream of those other folk of mine that lie hidden in the sea. There are whelks  on their hands and seaweeds in their hair. And the cold green fingers of the waves strum over their bones.

Or I hirple down to the pier and look over the harbour wall. I stand there for hours sometimes, thinking of their bonny heads still tossing with the turning tangles, out there somewhere. Sometimes I see them.

All I have loved is turned to coral and to kirkyard clay. Ay, the weariness of time and sea! They have taken from me everything I had, and left me an old empty shell. And yet, time and the sea are all I have ever known.

Death, as I approach it, is the wash of the waves inside my skull.

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Does such a story make the heart apparent? Later on the day that I bought that book I had dinner with Timm, feasting on salmon and oysters at a swank fish-house in downtown Portland on my company’s dime. We talked for hours that night, over dinner and then walking for a long while along the Willamette River in the last of that September day’s night, walking and talking, identicals of body and voice yet of disparate histories, with varying vantage on the mysteries of the heart. It was one of the few times I saw Timm over the last two decades of his life: we spent most of our adult histories apart: yet each time we flowed back into the conversation comfortably, resuming a relationship which didn’t seem to need much presence to be present in the heart. I think now of those wonderful salmon we ate that night, flown in on packed ice from the North Sea, harvested by fishermen who were far, that moment, from home, carrying on a conversation with their beloveds as they hauled on freezing nets on a boat that was rocking and pitching, straining to survive the sea’s cold embrace.

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A photo by Timm of Portland at night.

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Dale Earnhardt with son Dale Jr. before the start of the Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just a couple of hundred yards ahead of his father in the closing moments of the 2001 Daytona 500. “You’re doing quick glances at the mirror-I saw smoke and cars crashing,” he told a Playboy Magazine interviewer several months after the crash. “Then the race ends and I’m excited. ‘Man, I finished second in the Daytona 500!’ Even though he crashed, my father was going to be happy about that. I went looking for him, but he wasn’t at the care center. Some cops took me to the hospital. I was about five minutes behind him. Never saw him. I’m sure I could have if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t, not after I knew.”

Earnhardt was asked if he finds himself talking to his father, wondering what he’d say. “Not out loud, but I’ll think those things. For instance, I wanted a big old air compressor for the shop in my backyard. He said no, get a small one. Now, with him gone, I’ll make that decision. That’s a petty thing, but I still wonder if I could have talked him into it. Maybe I’ll go through my whole life wondering stuff like that. It might get harder, too. Right now I can recall his demeanor, I can see him. Ten years from now it will be harder to know what he’d want us to do.”

Father, apparently, has stayed close to his son, where in life he was distant and self-involved, leaving two marriages (and Dale). During a road race in Sonoma, California, some four years after Dale Earnhardt’s death, Dale crashed his modified Corvette and it caught fire.

“It was bad,” he told Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes.” “They have sensors in the car. It went from 115 degrees to 750 degrees in a second-and-a-half,” says Earnhardt Jr. “And then the sensor burned out. So, it was probably a lot hotter than that.”

It took him 14 seconds to get out of the car. He suffered second-degree burns on his chin, neck and his legs. “At that moment, you think of everything. You know, you think, ‘I could die here,'” says Earnhardt Jr. “This could be how I go. This would really suck if it’s the way I’m going out.”

Dale claims that his father was there for him. “Yeah, I mean, he would have to be,” he told Wallce. “I think he had a lot to do with me getting out of that car. Absolutely. I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t want to put some weird psycho twist on it, like he was pulling me out or anything, but he had a lot to do with me getting out of that car. From the movement I made to unbuckle my belt, to laying on the stretcher, I have no idea what happened. How I got out.

“I don’t have an explanation for it other than when I got into the infield care center, I had my PR man by the collar, screaming at him to find the guy that pulled me out of the car,” says Dale. “He was like, ‘Nobody helped you get out.’ And I was like, ‘That’s strange, because I swear somebody had me underneath my arms and was carrying me out of the car. I mean, I swear to God.”

“And that was your dad?” Mike Wallace asks.

“Yeah, I don’t know. You tell me,” says Earnhardt Jr. “It freaks me out today just talking about it. It just gives me chills.”

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Crazy, perhaps, but lots of people feel they are being watched over from the Other Side by a parent or spouse or brother or son. As it’s said, death ends a person but not a relationship. A conversation continues. I listen to “He’s Gone Away” and I think of “September 15” and the vast world of the beautiful  I was led to, through that song, both in the recovery of my heart from broken love to many loves to come, and into all music of Bill Evans, whose 1979 Paris concert I’m listening to at this moment.

As I finally come to the ending rounds of this post, I sit here on a wan, not-too-warm Saturday afternoon in spring with all the fragrant world waking. This is the second anniversary of my brother’s last weekend on earth. It was beautiful in Salem, Oregon, that day as he headed out with his camera to take shots of kids playing in the park.

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Kids playing in a Salem park, April 12, 2008. These were among the last photos found in his camera after. My older brother inherited the camera and has taken back up photography with a passion, claiming it keeps his relationship alive with his brother.

The song “He’s Gone Away” plays richly in my deeper ear, like a net holding my memory of my brother and helping me to see him on that day two years ago today, filling his camera with what beauty he could find, so that he might pour it back to the world.

Oh, he’s gone, he’s gone away,
For to stay a little while;
But he’s comin’ back if he goes ten thousand miles.

Look away, look away, look away over Yandro,
On Yandro’s high hill, where them white doves are flyin’
From bough to bough and a-matin’ with their mates,
So why not me with mine?

For he’s gone, oh he’s gone away
For to stay a little while,
But he’s comin’ back if he goes ten thousand miles.

Every morning when I drive off for my 30-mile commute into Orlando, I say my last goodbye as I’m walking out the door. I’ve already kissed my wife (she’s usually still in be asleep) and told her I love her; I’ve given the cats a last pet on the head; I’ve made sure all the doors are locked when I go out.

And as I walk out, I hear my wife call out: “Drive careful … “

“… Yes,” I call back up. “I’ll be back home soon enough.”

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Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2005.

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Song links:

“He’s Gone Away” by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny

“September Fifteenth” featuring Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays (concert video)

“Forgiven” by Chris Botti