A soul with no footprint

The strongest department in my high school was the English Department. Full of thoughtful, patient, insightful people, they mustered enough patience to teach literature and writing to adolescents with great care and affection for both the texts and the students. They were also a wonderful group of people outside of the classroom, and their willingness to engage a student as an adult, to share with them the things they cared about, and to foster real friendships provided a wonderful framework for both learning and development. The free spirit of the group maintained a collection of thousands of records in his classroom, and if you displayed proper care and reverence for his LPs, he would allow you to work in his room during free periods and to play your way through a dazzling, daunting catalog of music. In the fall of 1986, it was Paul Simon’s Graceland that served as the soundtrack to our classes. In the off hours, I worked my way through all sorts of great things – some of them mainstream classics that were new to me and others more obscure. For example, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was one of these, and it changed how I hear and perceive rhythm and patterns in music.

Nick_Drake_Fruit_Tree1More than any other musician I associate with this time and place, I think of Nick Drake. Maybe you know all about Drake. He is well-known now, in his niche way. But when I was fifteen, I had never heard of him, and no one I knew had ever heard of him. So when my wonderful teacher appeared with Fruit Tree, a box set of Drake’s music, it was completely terra incognita. Gently dropping the needle onto that record while sitting in that quiet room opened a window to a powerful, vital new artist, and having his life’s work unfold for me as I played my way through those four records was mesmerizing. Drake is a singer-songwriter, a genre that is prone to self-indulgent, sullen youths with modest amounts of talent. Yet Drake’s fluid guitar playing with its unexpected tunings, the lush arrangements (that presumably made sense in the early seventies but seemed a touch exotic when I first came across them), and his clear, cool voice all combine to make these no ordinary singer-songwriter recordings. I listened to the records while reading the book enclosed in the box set, and there I learned about Drake’s brief career, his troubled mental state, his lack of recognition in his lifetime, and his premature death at 26, by an overdose that may or may not have been intentional. Matching his intricate, exquisite songs up against his complicated young life was beyond me at fifteen, and remains so for me now. I  do not know enough about creativity and depression to draw any deep conclusions. Yet I am left with his beautiful songs and I love to hear them – both to think of Drake himself and also to think of so many happy hours spent communing with the music and records found in that one classroom long ago.

• • • • • • •

As I commute about my life these days, I listen to podcasts on my iPod (using the excellent podcatcher Downcast). I listen to a pretty standard array of shows – news, opinion, arts. I also listen to things like Aviation Week‘s Check Six, as I have always been a plane buff. I listen to a few about design, among them one called 99% Invisible. This show by Roman Mars mirrors his love of architecture, design, infrastructure, and urban decay, and it also veers in other directions, too. I was startled to hear this week’s episode, which was a rebroadcast of a show done elsewhere in 2009. (I should mention this episode is very distinctive stylistically, and it is pretty affected. It’s very different from the style of production found in the regular 99PI shows.) The show is about Nick Drake, and it challenges my illusion that I and only I know about this musician. If you have liked Drake for any amount of time, not much in this show is will be new to you, but the interview with his early producer is interesting. What startled me though, by nudging me to think about a few dates head on, was the timeline of Drake’s life. Born in 1948, dead in 1974, I first heard him in 1986. I had not thought about that interval, but it is only twelve years from his death to the time when my teacher appeared with that box set. Twelve years? Twelve years! In 1986, the booklet text describing Drake had embedded itself in my mind as if it were a chronicle from another age, an ancient time. As I think of it though, twelve years is a long interval for a fifteen year old – nearly a lifetime.

You know that your perception of time changes as you age. You know that the years accelerate and that the phrase “a long time” connotes a different interval to you now than it did years ago. Yet there are not many occasions when you are confronted with an example from your own memory of how far that perception has shifted. Stuck in traffic the other night, when I was not thinking about merge etiquette, I cued up Drake’s album Pink Moon and pondered the sensation of time. Like an effort to recall a dream, despite the initial intensity of that moment when I realized how long those twelve years had seemed to me in 1986, pursuing that thought has had me reaching for ideas that elude my grasp. As the series of dates and intervals sorted themselves out in my mind, the earlier recollection faded away, replaced by my present sense of time and its passage.

• • • • • • •

Should you wish to ponder your own changing perception of the passage of time over long intervals in your life, might I suggest the following soundtrack for those thoughts – twenty-eight minutes of Drake’s album Pink Moon?

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