When he was a kid he’d lie on his back in the sand just above the tideline where it dropped away to the bay, listening to the murmur of his grandparents talking by the firepit, watching the stars shimmer and wave above the fire, red glowing bits tracing the undulations as they crossed the starfield.
Sometimes, if no one else was nearby to be bothered, his grandfather would turn on the Sony transistor radio quietly, tuning in KFI 130 miles to the north, the reassuringly familiar voice of Vin Scully calling a Dodger game suggesting there was continuity even in an era when you could carry a radio in your coat pocket, Russian satellites were circling the globe — and the Dodgers would move from Brooklyn to L.A.
Dedicated readers will remember I posted a link to a discussion of an earlier version of this song in the songwriter’s forum I’ve been moderating for the last few weeks. The discussion there and your comments here helped me greatly. The changes were mostly not dramatic — but the extended discussion of the how many clowns section did prove especially helpful and I think it resulted in getting a lot closer to what I was after.
I was tempted to say that I wished I could have incorporated everyone’s suggestions — but in a very real way I did.
So I thank my friends there and here for their generous and thoughtful comments and suggestions. There wasn’t a bad one in the lot.
I’ve known a lot of bums who claimed to have been somebody, once. And, for sure, some of them were just high. But after some living, I began to see that sometimes you need a little altitude before your fall to really get going. Gravity being the way it is, you just fall faster and faster the farther you fall. (Wind resistance notwithstanding — and, hey, can’t you see we’re trying to be metaphorical, here?)
The guy in the song below used to be somebody once. That’s who he is now. A guy who used to be somebody once. Or he thinks he was. And, really, that’s what counts.
I got to know him when I was in my early 20s. It was the tail end of the hippie era. I used to take my guitar down to Recreation Park, a sprawling urban park next to a municipal golf course that butted up against a little salt water lagoon. continues below…
[As these things go, I think this version of Rambler turned out really pretty well. If you can stomach my stuff at all, you may want to take a listen.]
All the hippies and bikers would get together in snowballing circles of people sitting, crosslegged on the lawns, under towering trees planted back in the days that Long Beach was called Iowa by the Sea. Multiple circles would build like city states. And usually in the center of it all were the musicians. Not me, mind you. I’d been playing a couple years and I was… not a fast learner. So I often passed off my guitar to other guitar players I knew.
Often that was to my friend Tony, a young black guy with spidery fingers and an unfailingly rocking approach to guitar (later murdered in a tragic case of mistaken identity). I never minded loaning my guitar to Tony, since he was always gentle with it and checked often to see if I wanted it back — a rare trait among people who borrow guitars at parties and beaches and parks, I assure you.
While Tony tossed it up with the other fretgrinders in the center of things, I would often sit, drinking wine, looking for girls, talking to friends.
One of them was Bob, who was always around, even when I’d come early on a day off, typically hung over, wanting to simply sit by the concrete flycasting pond and play a little guitar in the morning sun.
Bob would be there. And, typically, as darkness enveloped the park and drunk hippies stumbled through a green forest of empty Red Mountain bottles, Bob would often be there, his eyes barely more than slits and as beatific grin wide across his face.
Eventually, I figured out that Bob lived in the park. He had a small, extremely well hidden home he’d made in a particularly heavily wooded area. The employees who knew about him looked the other way. He was a friendly guy with a sunny disposition. He was in his early 30’s with long, wavy hair that hung mid-back. He was a vet. If I remember, he served in Vietnam in a support role.
Seems to me I remember a failed marriage in his bio. He let go a bit after that. Stopped bothering with things like jobs and houses.
But he was a smart, funny guy. He had, he said, a lot of time to read. And he read all the time.
Over time the scene at Rec Park took a dark turn. As crowds got bigger, the hippies seemed to be getting pushed out of the ecosystem and a hard-drinking, pill-popping crowd seemed to be taking over. Fights were increasingly common and a new intruder threatened the musical ecosystem of the park:
The giant cassette portable, the boombox, the ghetto blaster — blaring funky 70s soul sides or the heavy-bottom, tweedle-centric metal of the era — and the sad phenomenon of blaster wars.
It just wasn’t the same old Rec Park any more.
A new, exotic, and high maintenance girl friend seemed to cut into my park time. I’d moved to the nearby beach and, by then, playing guitar by myself on the beach or on the sundeck of my apartment house with buddies like my pal Rick beat fighting the crowds and noise at the once-sylvan park.
But one day when I was scooping up some cheap breakfast at Egg Heaven, a little corner breakfast joint not far from the lagoon, I ran into Bob. I hadn’t seen him in months.
He looked great.
He, too, had been driven away from the park. He said the crowds ruined living in the park for him. He ended up staying at his mother’s for a while, took a job at the local college at a maintenace worker, got interested in ceramics, earned enough to get a little apartment by the lagoon, and was taking ceramics classes and writing poetry and prose.
I ended up visiting with him a number of times over maybe a year and a half while he lived there. He kept working, taking classes. He ended up buying a van, that 70s symbol of independence and self-containment.
The last time I saw him at Egg Heaven he said it was all falling into place. He was in the process of taking most of the things he’d accumulated at his apartment — and his writing and his ceramics — to his mother’s garage. He was giving notice at work.
He showed me the van. He’d begun to carefully outfit it for what was clearly intended to be an extended road trip. It reminded me of the kind of camping van retired engineers on tight pensions put together, an ingenious and methodical reinvention of everyday items and found objects.
After I’d admired his work, I said, “Well… where ya goin’, Bob?”
And he looked around the inside of the van and out the door and up the street to the east and said, “Well, I though I’d start out by leaving — and then just go from there…”
The world is so big then again it’s all so small… I might be in your arms tomorrow night or I might never make it home to you at all.
I wanted to suggest the self-exiled lover… consumed with yearning yet unwilling or unable to return home. Pride, fatalism, anger…
I knew a guy like that once. I worked with him for a short while here in Long Beach. He would talk about the family he left “to find work” years before, talk about them as though they were a thousand miles away, ten thousand. He’d never seen them again — but he thought of them every day, wondered how his kids were. Wondered if his woman was with another man.
One day I asked him where he came from and I was surprised when he said, Long Beach.
So I asked him if he’d been traveling when he met the wife he’d left behind. He looked at me funny for a second. She lives in North Long Beach, he said.
World So Big*
The world is so big
then again the world’s so small…
I might be in your arms tomorrow night
or I might never make it home to you at all
True Love, baby, the bottom drops out
and then you fall…
It only happens one time baby
but if you’re lucky maybe not at all
I could live a thousand lifetimes
I’d never forget a single one of your lies…
I could die a million times
ant the ghost of you would still draw me back to life
*name changed from “The World Is So Big” (9/25/2007)