Smoke Dreams of You–Fats Waller

Image by Sherry Flanders

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MIDKIN: Why “Smoke Dreams of You?”

SF: I heard it on the radio when I was little. It was a long time ago, but it took me back to a time even further back, a time when I hadn’t even existed. Fats Waller’s voice sounded like a crazy uncle whispering to you as you’re falling asleep.

MIDKIN: Did you like the song, or did it scare you?

SF: A little of both. I liked being scared, because it was mysterious. It wasn’t like being scared of nuclear apocalypse, or of being hit by a car. It was more mystical than that–being scared of smoke.

MIDKIN: Smoke and mirrors?

SF: I guess so. But I liked the idea that smoke could go anywhere. It could get into your house. It could even get into your lungs. When we were young, everyone smoked. And then we grew up and we did too. And we learned that this smoke had invaded us, when we were busy worrying about the Soviet Union.

MIDKIN: And the cat paw?

SF: That comes from the smoke. In my house growing up there were smokers, and cats!

MIDKIN: But the cats were dangerous?

SF: Everything’s dangerous, if you let it be. I just heard on the radio that it’s dangerous to kiss a kitten. I think it has to do with toxoplasmosis. But that right there–my childhood, gone up in smoke! And then this feeling that memory is in a little tank of our own making, and these dangerous things can just reach in a stir things up, like a kitten reaching into a fishbowl. And the memories themselves are dangerous.

MIDKIN: Is the date significant?

SF: Only to me.

Smoke Dreams of You–Fats Waller

Have You Never Been Mellow?–Olivia Newton-John

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By Andrew Fort

I know I’m not the only one who occasionally feels pity for those children growing up in the digital age. I like to hold a book in my hands. I like surface noise on vinyl. I like tape hiss. And I like it when children are bored and forced to come up with solutions to their boredom which involve sticks, or dirt, or lumps of clay.

One of the lumps of clay I used as a solution to my boredom when I was a child was a record player decorated as if it were made out of denim, with a pocket on the lid. It had three speeds—33 rpm, 45 rpm, and “N”.

“N” stood for “neutral,” and it was a godsend for a bored kid with an ear for strange sounds. My friend down the street and I discovered that “N” was the secret to unleashing all sorts of demonic voices on the world. Had we been of different inclinations, we might have discovered scratching, about a decade too early. Hip-hop could have had a very different face—the face of white suburban California eight-year-olds. Somehow I don’t think it would have caught on that way.

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Good for demonic voices

What we did instead was scare the dogs, scare the cats, scare the younger children down the street. My garage was in a perpetual state of disarray due to my long-term planning of a haunted house thrill ride which never fully materialized, and the record player was an ideal addition to the collection of cheap masks, blacklights, and thrift store wig heads.

But then something else happened. I discovered that you could play a 33rpm record on 45 rpm.

I have kids. I teach kids. And I know understand how relentless children can be. Often they are not simply kids, but a whole other state of being. They pull you out of whatever brainspace you may have happily, blissfully inhabited, into their chaotic and hyper-intense world. And that world is usually frenetic, sticky, and very very noisy.

To quote a worn-out phrase, they harsh your mellow.

But at the time I didn’t understand how potentially annoying playing the song “Have You Ever Been Mellow” over and over again at 45rpm might possibly be. Maybe that, or I didn’t care. What I did know is that it seemed the ideal voice for the pom-pom creature which seemed to be the cutest thing ever and in my imagination a constant companion on my adventures. And with his sticky feet, he stuck right to the denim pocket on the lid of my record player! Voila! A perfect way to spend the afternoon.

pom-poms-googly-eyesI don’t know how many times I played that record before my dad finally snapped. To his credit, it was more than twice. I think it may have been five or six times? Also to his credit, he didn’t direct his anger at me. No, he walked straight into my room, pulled the record off the record player, and slammed it against my desk. I didn’t know vinyl could shatter in that many pieces.

I was shocked into silence. Probably a silence that my father had wished for for a long, long, time. Maybe even since he’d had children.

Had been more prescient, I might have simply asked him the question which was on Olivia Newton-John’s mind, and which is on my mind a lot these days as we start up another year of school lunches, homework, sticky countertops, and noisy, noisy mornings: Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried?

TIP: For an approximation of a googly-eyed voice, click on the “tools” icon in the YouTube player and choose SPEED>2. For an awesomely mellow experience, choose SPEED>.5

Have You Never Been Mellow?–Olivia Newton-John

Hotel California–The Eagles

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By Lara Shelton

When I was eighteen I had a boyfriend who was six years older than me. He had a farmer tan, a crew cut, and he wore Oakleys. The last book he had read was a 1979 Trans Am owners’ manual. He drank Hamm’s beer like it was water. But he was mine, all mine.

When my parents moved to California, I wanted to bag a surfer. But we moved too far inland and I ended up with a jet skier.

There’s a certain culture of “going to the lake” which involves Sea Doos, beer, and trailer hitches. I was never a part of this culture. There were too many muscle tees, too many bikinis, too much bleach-blonde. But this is how they do nature in Riverside: by dominating it. One does not walk alongside a quiet creek; one rips across a lake at top speed while blasting Def Leppard.

And my man was taking me to the lake.

I was prepared for it. I grabbed my bottle of Sun-In, my bottle of Hawaiian Tropic, my Croakies.

boat-rentalAnd then we broke up on the way there. I don’t really remember why; with this particular boyfriend it’s more difficult to remember why not. I remember arguments about abortion. I remember arguments about fundamentalism. I remember arguments about alcoholism. We did not see eye to eye, me and him. But he had taken the day off, and he was not going to waste it driving me back home.

We arrived at the lake. It was hot. I sat on the beach eating a bologna sandwich on white bread while he unloaded the jet ski. I had a six-pack of Hamm’s to keep me company, and I camped out in the scorching sand near a line of vacation houses—the low-rent kind that week-end partiers trash and lower-income families rent for two weeks every summer. The water was flat and steel-gray. The sky was nearly white, feathered with brown, like my ’80’s hair.

From one of the houses, someone began to play music. Hotel California.

To me, the Eagles were always something like the lake crowd. They were a part of the dominant inland culture, a part from which I felt alienated. It was well enough when this music was playing in the background at a 7-Eleven, but it was nothing I would have chosen to listen to deliberately. It was something I put up with.

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Hotel California is a long song, and it got louder and louder as it played. It sounded as if the people at the house were playing it over a loudspeaker, rather than a normal system. It blared out across the flat surface of the water, claiming nature as its own. And I watched, getting buzzed on Hamm’s, as my ex-boyfriend flung himself back and forth across the lake, beating it into submission.

When the song ended on its protracted guitar solo, I briefly wondered what the yahoos in the house would put on next. And the answer, of course, was Hotel California. They put it on again, louder this time.

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place. Such a lovely place.

Trouble out on the water. Screams, and voices over bullhorns. A police boat. People run to the edge of the lake, looking out from underneath bucket hats.

Living it up in the Hotel California
Any time of year, you can find us here.

The police boat brings someone in to shore: a sobbing woman in a bathing suit. She stumbles off the boat with the help of the officer. She has been drinking. There are children in the boat with her, and they follow, sobbing as well, bundled into awkward blobs by their O’Neill life jackets. The woman crashes to the sand on a beach towel; the children stand, still looking out at the lake. Someone else in their group says, “they’ll find him.”

And my ex keeps careening back and forth across the water.

They don’t find him—the woman’s husband, the children’s father. The music keeps going. Another round of Hotel California.

I offer the children bologna sandwiches and the mother gives me a dirty look, as if I were a pedophile.

I remember a very cruel thought going through my mind as a fourth round of Hotel California starts up again: you deserve this. Not the missing husband, not the weeping kids. She deserved the soundtrack. I felt that, in a way, she had chosen her tragedy, and she had chosen Hotel California.

lara-quote-hotelAnd so had I, in a way. They must have played Hotel California a dozen times that day. As evening fell, the woman and her children were loaded into a State Trooper’s van. Something about the scene cut directly to what California was for me, and still remains. Death was everywhere. Death was banal. Death was the sort of thing you might see on a holiday, and say, “Oh, how sad” before you turn up your music and get on the freeway to drive home.

My ex-boyfriend came in and loaded the jet-ski back on to the trailer. He was polite enough not to ask me to help, but only because he thought I might scratch it.

As we pulled away, I could feel my skin already beginning to smart from a day in the sun. I knew I would be smarting for a long time.

Hotel California–The Eagles