Leonard Cohen, I had not heard about him, did not know what everyone else knew, for I had been out of the country, far, far away. When I first went to Bangkok I was impressed that it was 10,000 miles away whether from New York you flew east over Europe or west over Hawaii. The air fair was within pennies of being the same either way.
So when everyone knew that Leonard Cohen had come down from Montreal, I was nowhere near. And now I am getting him on the my happy car’s tape deck, though getting him through the sweet, but maybe watered down, sounds of Judy Collins, who is also introducing me to Joni Mitchell and others I have missed.
And Judy Collins has another song that is new to me but not to practically everyone with whom I empathize – this one about whales – The saving of the whales never having been on my radar in the years before I went away. And here are these great giant sea mammals on my tape deck – a song that starts in mid-19th century Scotland with a guy setting off on one of the new steamships that go much farther than sailing ships. He is going all the way to Greenland, where till steam engines the whales have been safely out of range. And the Judy Collins version has actual whales on the tape, their hollow, sad piercing cries, a kind of instant nostalgia, more haunting and evocative even than the sound of distant locomotives at night.
Farewell to Tarwathie, adieu Mormand Hill,
And the dear land of Grimmond I bid thee farewell
For I’m bound out for Greenland and ready to sail,
In hopes to find riches in hunting the whale.
And the sad, haunting whale sounds come back before the song is finished. And I am wondering about those decades of adventure and danger and yearning – and who gained and who lost.
And then I am listening to Roger Whittaker, who is as comforting – dare I think “light weight?” – as Judy Collins, and through whom I am catching up on even more that I have missed or knew but forgot. And through this Roger Whittaker I also I have another folk song, an Irish one, known to everyone who stayed in the country after I left, for I had missed Cat Stevens doing “Morning has broken” – as omnipresent in America in the early seventies, I learn now, as Frankie Laine’s “Up in the Morning” had been in the early fifties.
And strangely each time I come out of the city and point my car north, in the direction of what I know is far more a family place of hidden horror than just the beautiful place I had once thought it, I turn up the volume not on a dirge, which is what I think I should be doing, but, to my surprise, such lines as,
Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born on the one light
Eden saw play
Praise with elation
Praise every morning
Of the new day.
Once when I was back home for a brief spell I want to jail in Mississippi, not because I was drunk or disorderly or a loiterer but because I was in the civil rights movement. Now I am thinking that in the these past years I would have been out saving whales, and I think too of saving Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as well as warring on poverty and promoting civil rights. Saving the whales and myself and all the others. Janis Joplin. Janis Joplin giving head on an unmade bed in the Chelsea Hotel.Children were not part of my actual world, but now I think I could have been catching the falling children the way Holden Caulfield wanted. And maybe – if everything had been calm and I had not sought a certain sort of adventure – I would have been looking not so much for sweet longing as for love.