River days

There was a moment recently when I and everything I own was out on the road between my old place and this new one. I sat in the cab of the rather overlarge moving truck, my computer backpack resting safely on my knee, feeling exhilarated and chatting to the classics student who had come to help me move. Brandon told me about his recent trip cross country with the moving company’s owner, how they hiked the Grand Canyon and skied at Tahoe while shepherding some family’s possessions from one life to another. It was a write off, he explained.

Did you know Mark Twain once claimed a gorgeous, unsettled virgin forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and then promptly burnt up nearly every tree on it? He and a friend had to launch a boat into the lake to escape the accidental conflagration. You won’t believe the things that happened to Mark Twain, and the things he made happen. The life he lived. I’ve been reading a fine biography of Twain since I wrote about Best for the Best and had to admit ignorance about his life.

So, first a clarification. Regarding the riverboat scenes in Josh Ritter’s song Best for the Best, I wrote, I can see that riverboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes. It turns out this was not the preferred way to pilot a steamboat down the—albeit placid—Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. It turns out it required rather constant attention, and Twain spent much of his time behind the wheel quite frightened that he would crash or run aground. In fact he had recurrent nightmares about it. But the river—his piloting years were interrupted by the Civil War and he never took it up again—was a great source of nostalgia throughout his life, and, as was often his way, once some years had intervened he remembered it slightly differently than he had lived it. When things got sticky he often spoke longingly about returning to the river, as if he’d be immune to troubles there.

In the final verse of the cryptic song Monster Ballads we hear from Twain via Huck Finn:

And I was thinking about my river days
Thinking about me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn

There’s reflection here, and high adventure, fluent friendship, flight from the law, and yet the setting imbued with the solemn and sacred. The river as church. In light of what I’ve read about Twain and those four evocative lines, I’ve been thinking about the notion of river days. Those stolen seasons of our lives when we drop our bags and forget who we are or were supposed to be and run barefoot through the tall grass of life. When the experience becomes all.

Travel is usually required. Youth helps. I chose London: went for six months, came back with hardly more than my original suitcase four years later. I had the time of my life, or so my heart keeps telling me, when Parliament or Piccadilly rises up in my mind’s eye and mocks the routine that has worn down an easy path—or a rut—that I’ve begun to follow without having to watch where I’m going. That first year in London everything seemed injected with the novel. I went about buzzing with the heightened awareness of it all, as though outside myself. Even I was a novelty, and this new me observed the other in the huge glittering city and in interaction with new foreign friends, questioning all sorts of things never questioned—or even acknowledged—before, and tending a bumper crop of new insecurities. They were good, though. They made me grow. And they made me think quite a bit about America and her place in the world.

Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been drawn to water, and some of my best thinking and feeling during my London days occurred while staring out at the muddy Thames. How to describe what happens when two human eyes linger over a body of water? Words don’t seem enough . . . soothing, I suppose. Monster Ballads just might prove that music can do better. You’ll also get the sound of journey, with the hypnotic, playful bass line and gentle, regular percussion. And so much more, or something else entirely: Monster Ballads is extraordinary in that it’s one of the most vibrant and vivid musical portraits I’ve ever heard, seen, touched, and yet it’s also . . . a pristine ivory canvas . . . being caressed by wind-rippled curtains on the windows . . . of a room of sunshine-scattered gold coins . . . in a mountainside cabin. Grab a brush, it says.

Of course the problem with having had some river days is that one can get a little impatient when the adventure dies down. One can find herself standing in her kitchen belting I don’t give a damn for just the in betweens. She might walk blocks and blocks out of her way to have a secret serenade by a foreign accent. The hard times abroad, marinated by memory, will soften.

And if one is honest she might find herself trying to replicate that frusterated river days sensation in compartments of her stateside life. She might sell all her furniture and move into a condo share across town, just to shake things up, to see if anything can seem new again. And she may, as the moving truck approaches the turning off the main road—the westward journey broken at just four miles—be tempted to turn to the driver and say, “Can we keep going?”

It could be best

On Saturday a plane sliced across our cloudless indigo sky leaving a white plume. It was straight as an incision, the sky bleeding white jet stream that quickly dissipated into wisps. The magnolia trees stand poised to bloom on our main thoroughfare, the buds pointing skyward. Everyone, it seems, is happy. Or faking it. It’s a glorious time to be in the city.

It’s a year ago this month that I discovered Josh Ritter. I listen to the fabulous Iain Anderson of Radio Scotland at work, and he played Best for the Best last spring. I brought up the playlist immediately. The questioning, unanchored opening guitar riffs that morph into a gentle melody that says Come away with me, the bright, warm, slightly tired voice like a caress, the mysterious lyrics. The achingly gentle piano. Who was this guy? I found the official website, and I was on my way.

But let’s talk about Best for the Best. It was inspired by Mark Twain, apparently. (If only you could have followed my bewildered thought process, when I, in the stupid instinct that often seduces audiences, presumed it was autobiographical.) I’m afraid I have to read up on Twain a bit. I do know he lived an extraordinary life, rich with varied experience, and of course there’s the small matter of his being one of our most revered writers and orators. (And I did read some of his novels, years ago.) It seems a critique of those who dismiss others’ tribulations with that hackneyed phrase, “It’s for the best.” The narrator ultimately decides to make his own way, and to accept that some things most resolutely are not for the best. And that people and conventional feel-good wisdom are wrong much of the time. It’s a somewhat cynical notion, surely, so rather a paradox that it is the genesis of a rebirth of hope for me. But it’s Josh, so there’s romance, too: “Now I listen to my sweetheart and I listen to my thirst,” he says.

The thing is I was living this sentiment out a bit (though not in wrestling ring or riverboat) in April 2006, and yet it was simply the sound that initially drew me in. I mean, that voice. That tender, commanding voice. It was weeks before I properly considered the lyrics. I was going through a rather terrible time, and I’d had my own crop of “best” betrayals heaped on me by lazy well wishers. And I’m not sure the resentment is fairly focused on the well wishers; I think it’s also just at the fates, a rejection of blind acceptance of “Everything happens for a [good] reason.” (Something I’ve never been quite able to swallow, or especially, to say.) I love the personification of Best as something able to be lashed out at, rejected, and insulted: it’s unkind, damnable, blameworthy, false. Personifying the mystery and unsettling randomness of human experience in this way seems a grand tribute to human spirit.

My favorite line is “Now I ride a lazy river through the Mississippi fan.” The lullaby phrase is the languid wending water, the chords of the piano the tiny windblown crests in the current. Josh’s voice is lazy and resigned—the words slurred—as it traces a melodic arc that follows the speaker’s resignation. I can see that steamboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes.

My goosebumps line is “But I was lonesome for a girl who could pin me down.” It’s reminiscent of Dylan—so many speakers doomed to drift, exiled to forever search, but longing for a woman’s quieting influence. And me, like countless others, lonesome for a brooding, world-weary riverboat captain/heavyweight wrestler/celebrated American writer/singer-songwriter to pin . . . you know, insofar as pinning down means setting free.