A couple weeks into the new semester and he found himself not in his Comp Civ 300 class but floating lazily in a creaky-oared rowboat on the tiny pond of a WPA-built park, tucked away in the foothills, a pretty, green-eyed sophomore facing him as he put up the oars.
130 year old oaks reached out from the edges of the rowing pond and an old Spanish American War cannon poked proudly from a cement nook. When he was a kid, the ornamental wall around the cannon wasn’t there. And there were a few other cannons, as well, strewn haphazardly along the banks. Like toys a once-proud owner couldn’t bear to throw out, he thought once, walking through the deserted park long after closing.
There’d been an older man rowing aimlessly around the pond when they got there but his time ran out or he got bored soon enough and they were left alone on the water. A radio buzzed faintly from the boathouse and a handful of little kids played on the cannon. It was a weekday and quiet enough that he could hear the nearly still water lapping gently against the boat.
He had the oars up and now sprawled out his legs and leaned back, gazing at her.
A trio of crows flew in loose formation across the half-sky that opened between the trees over the pond. Faint, rippled clouds floated high in a preternaturally blue sky. A pair of ducks quacked in undecipherable sequence from the other side of the pont, 50 yards away. In the boathouse, somebody changed the radio from one rock station to another. So faint he almost couldn’t make it out: Sam Cook’s “You Send Me.”
She was wearing a white, linen dress… the kind where the neckline is low and the shoulders are apparently designed to keep falling down the arm . Her dark hair tumbled over her shoulders, a half smile played on her unrouged lips and her green eyes held his gaze. Her long, tanned leg reached out so her sandal-less foot could momentarily touch the side of his thigh. In the moment of the gesture he found a world of dreams and fears, swirling like a cosmos in formation then disappearing back into whatever dimension holds our deepest and most secret longings.
My buddy James would have said it was all just a little too on the nose.
I first met him around ’75 or ’76 in a class on Surrealism. He and his brother Dave were both in the class. I didn’t get to know them then. I don’t even remember talking with them. I think I complimented them on their final project: a four handed piano duet of the theme from Exodus — with each keyboardist playing in a different key.
It was… uh… challenging listening.
A couple years later, I would be in a local cover band dive drinking semi-cheap beer and listening to some surprisingly good pub rock from a band called the Daily Planet. It was a decidedly unhip room with a decidedly unhip crowd, for the most part, but I noticed a party of 8 or so trendy looking twentysomethings — well, they had short hair and dark clothes — not locals, I decided.
No One Said Nothin’
more music links at end of post
When a pretty young blonde appeared by my elbow as I watched the band and asked me to dance I decided this was not a typical cheap beer Thursday. When she invited me to join her party I thought it was getting interesting.
As we sat at the table, she leaned conspiratorially close and whispered, The guy at the end of the table is my brother. He doesn’t like people to make any fuss which is why we came here. Do you know that band, The Knack? (The insipid but ingratiating “My Sharona” was inescapable on the radio at the time.) My brother is Doug Feiger, the lead singer.
I looked at him.
He did look eerily familiar. Kind of like Feiger. But eerily familiar.
I decided to play it blase.
You know who that is, don’t you? She asked. She seemed just the slightest bit offended that I might not. I assured her I did — but I bit my tongue rather than follow my first impulse and launch into a frank evaluation of the song’s merits, possibly leading to a tirade on existential burden of its oppressive ubiquity.
It was not every day, after all, even then, that a pretty blonde asked me to dance and join her at her table.
The people at her table all seemed glib and glamorous… too cool, I thought at the time, to be associated with a band like The Knack.
And, at what clearly was the head of the joined tables was the guy I just couldn’t quite believe was Doug Feiger, flirting with the women and verbally jousting with everyone. He was assured, witty, sophisticated.
Clearly, he wasn’t Doug Feiger.
In fact, it would turn out that he was one of the two brothers playing that tweaked out four-handed Exodus I’d heard in my Surrealism class several years earlier. He’d recognized me from class and prodded his younger sister (drinking on a very fake ID) to bring me back to the table. She came up with the Doug Feiger gambit on her own, I guess.
James was then 21 and still at the university. I’d find out later that the huge, sharp Caddy he was driving belonged to his employers, ultra-wealthy Newport Beach nouveau riche types for whom he was a sort of butler/personal assistant/retainer.
(I’d later find out that the boss on that job was an utterly infamous investment scam artist who’d been on full page ads on the back of Sunday supplements and on late night commercials for years working his ultimately rather uninmaginative but surprisingly effective pyramid scheme. Years later, after the investment scammer hard died, James would be hired to rewrite the book for the widow who was preparing a new round of book blitzing as the memory of her late husband’s sins faded. He’d end up doing three times the work and getting 1/3 the pay he expected… no writing credit and no residuals, of course. It goes without saying.)
James Norling was a fine singer, a strong rhythm guitarist, and at his best a great — if not ultimately prolific — writer. I’d been in a couple punk bands and a no wave dance band but I was really anxious to do something else. I’d been listening to a lot of Joy Division and Magazine and when I found out that James was into much of the same moody, art-damaged music I’d been listening to (he had a truly amazing record collection… Eno, Can, Faust, Cale, old Pentangle) I felt like I’d really found a musical soul mate.
It seemed natural to introduce James and my buddy Rick Black, who lived about a 30 second walk away from the house James shared with his sister Sheila, the pretty blonde I’d danced with that night.
At the time Rick was just finding himself as a guitarist. He had speed and power but unlike a lot of guitarists of the era, he also knew how to play in between the notes, how to bend and sing notes lyrically.
Rick was the fauvist bluesman, I was the fervid, mic-swallowing punk, and James was the urbane sophisticate… what I guess you’d call your metrosexual kinda guy. I was surprised, at the time, when I found out he’d never been to Europe. But then I had to remind myself he was barely into his twenties.
Like any new band of the era, it took us a while to find a drummer. After some false starts and dead ends we ended up with a young guy named Marty, who was just out of high school and going out with James’ sister.
Marty brought a muscular, tom-heavy punkish tribal drive to the band. With Rick riffing and occasional twisting off into soaring or searing feedback-edged solos, me playing a usually overdriven bass (and switching off to lead guitar every third or fourth song — every bass players dream), and Marty’s pounding polyrhythms, it was left to James’ rhythm guitar to somehow anchor each song with edgy backbeats and quirky chopping rhythms.
First we were the Dogmatics. For a week we were the Wacky Wabits, and finally we settled on Machine Dog* — inspired by the needlepoint illustration of a particularly classic English Bulldog on the wall of our practice space in the back of a furniture store in Orange. (*Not, not not to be confused a certain set of latter day poseurs who no doubt came up with the name of their band independently — around a decade later.)
We played through most of 1980 and into 1981 — even through a fall where first James had a nasty carwreck where he broke his ankle and ruptured his spleen removed… or was it gall bladder… one of the ones that isn’t that big a deal. Gall bladder. I dunno. Anyhow. Bummer. We played as a 3 piece for a couple weeks unitl James came back. That was August 23, 1980.
A precise month later, Marty the drummer got in a fight in the bleachers of his old high school when one of his ex classmates and class rivals gave him a hard time for cutting his hair to be in a punk/new music band. Marty easily to the best of the other guy bur somehow ended up with his ankle caught in the bleachers and broke it. The ankle, I mean. James and Rick and I played three weeks without a drummer. His accident was September 23. Like I said, a precise month later.
One more precise calendar month later, on the night of October 23, I was riding my motorcycle home from a Mexican restaurant about 4-1/2 miles from my apartment when a driver t-boned me, breaking my femu, my hip — and my ankle.
(Rick and his girlfriend [now wife] were away on a trip up the coast. I said a little prayer for them — but I figured the real vortex of improbable patterns would make November 23rd the real threat. Happily, Rick, by staying very very still in a very safe place, was able to avoid calamity, thereby breaking the jinx and perhaps saving the world as we know it.)
Our buddy Steve Becker, a fine guitarist and harmonicist in his right, filled in for me on bass — and when I got out of the hospital two months after my accident, I was back at practice a week later. In a walker. But there.
part 2, coming soon…
Today, September 22, at 9:03 pm, PDT, marks the Autumnal Equinox, the moment in the year when day and night are closest to equal in length.
It is also the anniversery of A Year of Songs.
My “Someone Said Something” was probably my friend James Norling’s favorite in my songbook and he insisted — no, really, he insisted — that he or I or, occasionally, our pal Jose Alba perform the song at almost every party, barbecue, picnic or poker game where a guitar came out. It became a running gag but it never really ended.
Until this last week.
James Norling passed away unexpectedly. He lost consciousness and never woke up. He was 49, if I’m doing my math right.
I’ll offer this wordless version of “Someone Said Something” as my final song for A Year of Songs. Well… this year of songs.
I wish I’d known that as a kid. It seemed like I was always bored, then. It wasn’t until I more or less stopped watching television late in my teenage years that I stopped being boring. (OK, I did spend some delirious late, late night hours watching old horror movies over at my pal Shawnee’s house. Her parents were amazingly tolerant of her hippy friends, even after the rest of the household became seized by Born Again Fever.)
But, by the time I had crossed paths with that truism, I was already decidedly unboring. If I do say so myself.
I had a pal who was out on the road in those days with Chakka Khan’s band. It seemed so extraordinarily glamorous. But it was driving him nuts. He had a beautiful wife and a young baby and he really wanted to be home with them instead of holing up in a seemingly endless series of motel rooms.
I remember listening to him and offering up one suggestion after another… but he had them beat. And more or less legitimately. I offered up sight seeing and he said, Mostly, I’ve seen it. I suggested museums. You’d be surprised how lame the museums in Peoria and Hackensack are. How about learning a new instrument or something? I offered. He just looked at me funny. How about drinking, I finally said, and cracked the seal on the Tequila in front of us.
Some years later I would pick up a Rolling Stone magazine and glance at the lead article on a certain poor little rich boy rock star. Fabulously wealthy, he languished in his own shadow. His lack of passion became a burden and, for a time, he stopped writing. The Rolling Stone writer tried his damnedest to capture the star’s dilemna — and maybe if I’d had a little more compassion in those days, I’d have been able to dial in that wavelength.
But it just slipped past me.
All I could think about was all that money and all those possibilities and all he could come up with was… boredom.
I have considerable more empathy, now. Once I stopped drinking a dozen years ago, I started finding some compassion for those who could not, as I’d often advised, reach right down and pick themselves up by their bootstraps. Because, once I’d taken away my own medicine, I found my own bootstraps just a little hard to reach… they were so far and every effort, in those days, seemed crushing.
I eventually climbed out of it — but for way too long, I was depressed. Some days I couldn’t bring myself to go out or even do the simplest chores. Once an aggressive, restless bon vivant, out many more nights than not, I found myself unable to stay at parties more than a few minutes. After a while, it just seemed easier not to go.
So I holed up in my house, with my cats and my guitars…
Like a self-replicating fractal, it just seems like everything repeats in patterns. Everything reflects everything else. The stuff of the universe forms and reforms itself into seemingly infinite variety… yet underneath it all, it’s all the same noumenal field… endless, timeless.