Daily Dose: Nat King Cole

When I was a kid, I suffered from night terrors that would prove to be a lifelong affliction. In the earliest one I remember, my childhood dog was ravaged by a roaming pack of wolves that crashed through my bedroom window and brought the fight into bed with me. Then, after the delinquent parents of some neighbor kids down the street allowed the viewing of an R-rated vampire flick, the night terrors got real weird, real fast. My mother had a stroke of genius and created “Monster and Wolf Go-Away Spray”, a mixture of water and a few drops of her perfume with which I would douse every nook and cranny of my room under the assurance that the concoction would repel unwanted visitors. Because fear is relative, the trick worked for a time, but, unfortunately, its effectiveness began to fade as I grew older.

In middle school I began listening to music while I fell asleep since night terrors one night often inspired insomnia in the next–a fear to sleep for fear of what may come. Mostly classical at first–movie soundtracks, Erik Satie, etc–but this was too light. Then I moved onto the harder stuff, like Bush, but that was too much. Then I found the sound that was just right: Nat King Cole. Jaunty and melodic, there are nothing but feel-good rhymes, sentimental songs, and finger-snapping tunes that come from his smooth and perfectly pitched voice. There was something about falling asleep to this aura that soothed me completely, and from that point forward I listened to music of his sort every time I slept alone.

As life has gone on longer and times they’ve gotten tougher, Nat’s voice has seen me through the roughest of it–namely the loss of the two brightest guiding lights in my life. As I wrote some time ago, Nat King Cole held a prominent role in the soundtrack I orchestrated for my father’s funeral when I was just 26. I also included him in the mix the night we said our final goodbye to a beloved grandmother just last year. These were deliberate choices, to be sure, but on other pivotal occasions he has found a way to appear free of personal selection.

Two years after burying my father, we sold the rambling ranch home I had grown up in and left Los Angeles for good. We packed my childhood into boxes and sold what didn’t fit, hauling the load to San Diego where we had summered all my life to be nearer my father as he followed the race track circuit south each year from June through August. Now the place was our permanent home, my mother’s mostly but also mine too, and after a long, exhausting day, my uncle suggested we go out to dinner. We showered up and ventured down the road to a restaurant my father had watched in each stage of construction, poking his head in for opening updates and assuring the owners that he and his girls would be their first diners. We were and the place was a favorite family eatery thereafter because it was good but also because it was close to home.

That night, I sipped my glass of wine, chatted with my mom and favorite uncle, and commented on the music playing softly in the background–a well-curated mixture of indie and contemporary music. Then it happened. Anathema to any music that played before or after it, Nat King Cole’s “Smile” came up in the queue. Since this is the song I chose to play at my father’s funeral, the one that played as my mother and I left the church, arm in arm, it stopped our table cold. No one said a thing since to speak would be to sob. We shook our heads, took an extra hard drink of our preferred poison (black coffee for mother, wine for we drinkers), and individually sighed heavily. We finally made eye contact, and my mom said “That can’t be a coincidence.”

Later that night I asked our waiter who had made the playlist for the evening. Turns out, it was Pandora–a randomly selected station that played randomly selected songs. Meaning Nat King Cole had found his way into our moment to soothe the fear of what may come, or perhaps he was sent to us from another stratosphere by a bundle of Stardust energy from beyond doing what it had always done best: protecting its girls.

 

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Daily Dose: Cat Power Two-for

I found Cat Power in college at a time in my life when I really needed to find Cat Power. At the tender age of 23ish, I was emerging from the wreckage of a 7-year relationship that had found me as a teenager and left me unsure of who I was as an adult. I was adrift, a fact that had its pros and cons, and in search of what I was/am. Somehow I’d gone from a black-clad beatnik in high school to a pink-satin sucker strutting around San Francisco like I was Carrie Bradshaw or something. I needed to get the pink out.

So I lived alone for awhile; I wrote prose poetry, was miserable and lonely, and then I began a period of ill-fated dating in which I said yes to any fella willing to ask this broad out. There’s no faster way to discover who you are than to subject yourself to a flotilla of first dates that have no prayer for seconds. Being a lady, most dates ended with a sweet high-five becuase there is nothing less sexual than a high-five: it requires minimal bodily contact, it’s rife with bro signals, and it creates very visible distance between two people. This caught many men off-guard, angered a few, and often, despite my best efforts, ended in an awkard hug and a deflected, overly moist kiss that (thankfully) landed on my neck and not my mouth.

At a point, I gave up on men and focused my energies on writing and, later, music. Cat Power entered my life via her 2003 album You Are Free. Songs like “Good Woman”, “He War”, and “Free” spoke to me with their fragility, their indie grace, their absolute honesty and intrinsic tragedy. It had highs and lows, just like I did at the time. This was a woman to relate to, this Chan Marshall Cat Power, and she didn’t wear pink. Shy by nature, she was entering a stint in rehab in 2006 to remedy the way she used and abused herself in coping with crippling depression that often masqueraded as stage fright. Luckily I never needed rehab for my misadventures, but I was definitely, shall we say, somewhat pickled at the time so I identified with her demons.

Concurrent to my Cat Power discovery, I met a boy who helped hammer the lid shut on the pink-satin sucker I longed to no longer be. He was a writer, he was a mystery; he echoed the whipser that flowed like ink through my pen, and above all…he silently understood it all because he was my peer. To call it love would be to minimize it in some way since this boy gave me so much more: he gave me the gift of myself. I met his friends, a spectacular group of people pursuing passions, who welcomed me in as one of their own. On many a Thursday night, we drank, drove ourselves mad on conversation, and danced like idiots to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” at a dive bar on Irving Street. In this motley crew I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, surrounded by like-minded folk, and the comfort of belonging did much to reorient my priorities, help me settle some unfinished business with my previous beau, and, in general, be calm.

This boy and I were not to be the thing we tried to be. Ultimately, it was a classic case of poor timing. Instead we float in and out of each other’s lives now, ironically always at the perfect time, and he remains a sustaining pressure point for my writing, a sort of phonetic accupunture that stills the nerves and let’s the words roll; he is a very good friend. The writing has become habitual to a point where I dare call myself a writer. Cat Power, too, still calls to me. I was fortunate to see her perform at the Warfield in San Francisco a year or so after she successfully completed rehab. She was vibrant, sang and played the piano beautifully, and connected with the audience by handing many of us white tulips at the end. Stage fright conquered, to be sure. And that dive bar on Irving? It’s still there, albeit under new ownership, and I walk by it every morning to grab a latte on my way to work.

On the days that I’m particularly nostalgic, I’ll pause a moment in front of that bar to shift my hot beverage from one hand to another, but really it’s to let the memory of a time when I lived in bars and danced on tables sit for a minute. The past in present, again and again and again.

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(Double) Daily Dose: The Byrds & Green Day

The 8th grade class with which I graduated in 1998 was given a choice for soundtracking its graduation ceremony: stay within tradition or go rogue. For 30+ years my Southern California middle school played “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds as their 8th-graders symbolically left the nest for high school hallways and beyond.  After extolling the virtues of taking our place within the rank and file of students that had come before us and were to follow, senior faculty members added an aside that we could, if we chose to break with tradition, select a contemporary song by which to remember that year of change. We were then allowed to vote.

Understanding what it meant to the faculty, some of whom were alumni of that very school, our class overwhelmingly voted for “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day and instantly incurred the disappointed wrath of our home room history teacher. For what it’s worth, we didn’t mean to disappoint; we were just too young to want what others wanted for us just because they wanted it. Generation X, Y, Me to the core.

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See & Read: 9/18/2014

ColeValley_Night

Here I AM–

A fake intellectual

trying on a dozen different hats

to plume my tongue;

Looking for a current to connect.

 

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Daily Dose: Elton John, “Your Song”

My father was a man of duwop and soul, but my mother was a sunkist Californian prone to pop and folk music of the 1960s and the 1970s. From her I inherited my love of Elton John: a love that compelled me to steal all her old albums, on each of which her maiden name is signed in adolescently perky penmanship. This is a theft she’s never let me live down, but I persist in keeping my stolen goods because the man has meant that much to me throughout the years. In middle school, high school, college, and beyond, I’ve always been able to pull an album from its dusty jacket and find exactly what I need. I’ve even had the good fortune to see him live on the Peachtree Road Tour, and let me tell you…the man has more energy than a pack of 22-year-old frat boys let loose at a brew pub. Proof that life can get better with age; hallelujah.

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Daily Dose: Nirvana, “About A Girl”

Because this MTV Unplugged blew the world’s mind like Dylan had just gone electric. Because Kurt’s green sweater was just exhibited at an in-depth Nirvana retrospective staged by the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Because rock legend Dave Grohl is wearing a Normcore turtleneck. Because Nirvana fundamentally changed all of us 90s kids, whether or not we understood that.

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When Lighting Strikes: Czeslaw Milosz

A creative lightning bolt from a source that selected Nostos Nic: Nobel Prizer, Czeslaw Milosz.

A creative lightning bolt from a source that selected Nostos Nic: Nobel Prizer, Czeslaw Milosz.

I read for knowledge, I read for clarity, and the perfect paragraph(s) has always had the same impact on me as the perfect song–keeping in mind that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Often, I’ll select a volume to read from my stacks of dusty books that were purchased and then forgotten for months and years. Why that volume strikes me then, at that particular time, I do not know because it picks me, and then one or two or three chapters in I realize it is the precise book I needed at that moment. The words cut deeply, the plot lines are too relevant, and I leave the book behind a little more determined in my course of action, a bit more comfortable in my world view: an energized person. If music marks moments, then literature (fiction and non-fiction) makes them through contextualization.

This has the case with Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes and every poem I’ve ever read by Charles Bukowski (as messed up as that sounds), and has happened most recently with a book by Czeslaw Milosz titled Visions from San Francisco Bay. In the first chapter, Milosz outlines his intention for the book and it electrified me so I thought I’d share the lighting strike. Hopefully it hits home for you too.

My Intention

I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said–you begin with those words and return to them. Here means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other and in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.

I have written on various subjects, and not, for the most part, as I would have wished. Nor will I realize my long standing intention this time. But I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my member, and all I now assent to, dissent from. However, in pursuing the impossible, I did learn something. Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks other will understand. There are, however, time when somehow we slowly divest ourselves of the shame and being to speak openly about all the things we do not understand. If I am no wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgement of one’s own limits, which, mysteriously, are also limits common to many others; and aren’t these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?

I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas. To borrow their language can be helpful in many ways, but it also leads imperceptibly into a self-contained labyrinth, leaving us in alien corridors which allow no exit. And so I must offer assistance, check every moment to be sure I am not departing from what I have actually experience on my own, what I myself have touched. I cannot invent a new language and I use the one I was first taught, but I can distinguish, I hope, between what is mine and what is merely fashionable. I cannot expel from memory the books I have read, their contending theories and philosophies, but I am free to be suspicious and to ask naive questions instead of joining the chorus which affirms and denies.

Intimidation. I am brave and undaunted in the certainty of having something important to say to the world, something no one else will be called to say. Then the feeling of individuality and a unique role begins to weaken and the thought of all people who ever were, are, and ever will be–aspiring, doubting, believing–people superior to me in strength of feeling and depth of mind, robs me of confidence in what I call me ‘I’. The words of a prayer two millennia old, the celestial music created by a composer in a wig and jabot make me ask why I, too, am here, why me? Shouldn’t one evaluate his changes beforehand–either equal the best or say nothing. Right at this moment, as I put these marks to paper, countless others are doing he same, and out books in their brightly colored jackets will be added to that mass of things in which names and titles sink and vanish. No doubt, also at this very moment, someone is standing in a bookstore, and faced with the sight of those splendid and vain ambitions, is making his decisions–silence is better. That single phrase which, were it truly weighed, would suffice as a life’s work. However, here, now, I have the courage to speak, a sort of secondary courage, not blind. Perhaps it is my stubbornness in pursuit of that single sentence. Or perhaps it is my old fearlessness, temperament, fate,  a search for a new dodge. In any case, my consolation lies not so much in the role I have been called to play as in the great mosaic-like whole which is composed of fragments of various people’s efforts, whether successfully or not. I am here–and everyone is in some ‘here’–and the only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another.

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Daily Dose: Cake, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”

Musicians sometimes takes themselves too seriously, making their music remote. Not Cake, never Cake. This band was omnipresent on KROQ, a Southern California radio station, in the 1990s and early 2000s, and, as such, was in the background of every stolen summer moment at the beach during that period. While I never caught the Cake obsession like so many of my peers, I know the lyrics to most of their songs despite never having purchased an album. Their music is unquestionably a Nostos Algos trigger for me, and since our whiskey brains were listening to their early catalog at an in-home hangout session last night…well…I had to include a sliver of their contribution to my youth in this Daily Dose. As the saying goes, “Let them eat Cake!”

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Daily Dose: Bush, “Everything Zen”

If Gwen Stefani was the role model, then Gavin Rossdale was all that a teenage girl could possibly want in an imaginary boyfriend. He was British, incredibly handsome, and frontman for the quintessential 90s rock band. If you lived in the suburbs, this was a particularly potent combination. We little ladies ended many a long middle school week with a sweet slumber party where pieces of paper were folded and a game was played to decide who we would marry, how many kids we would have, and what kinds of cars and houses we would own; I always included Gavin Rossdale. And when I found out he idolized Allen Ginsberg while watching an episode of MTV’s cribs, well, I was done for.

While my lustful teenage melanchology compelled me to put “Glycerine” on repeat, I listened to “Everything Zen” when I wanted to thrash about my room and feel cool. The albums Sixteen Stone and Razorblade Suitcase were permanently embedded in my walkman, and I recall my sullen puss listening to them while riding in the backseat of my Dad’s car on the way to dinner, my Mom in the passenger seat and his cologne permeating the entire interior–the leather of which would creak as he turned a corner too fast, which he always did because he was a Terrible driver with a capital “T”.

For me, Bush harkens back to Southern California winters in which we wore sloppy sweaters with sleeves that hung past our hands so we could twist them neurotically in emulation of our silver screen idols of the era. Bush helped me build my identity in ways I could not know then, but appreciate now, and Gavin Rossdale has had an indelible influence on the type of men I’ve chosen to date over the last 10 years. While it pains me to see how far the band has fallen in recent years, Bush and its enigmatic frontman will forever hold a place in my heart. Rock on, you 1990s gods.

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Daily Dose: No Doubt, “Spiderwebs”

If you were a teenage girl in the 90s and lived in Southern California, chances are your hero was Gwen Stefani. Ska was having a moment and No Doubt was everywhere; Gwen was gorgeous and offered a uniquely strong, DIY role model for young girls who wanted to be independent but glamorous in a quirky way–a fantastic antidote to other independent female voices of the era that were more of the Janeane Garofalo, coffee house aesthetic.

Then she married Gavin Rossdale (whom you will see soon in Daily Dose garb), and started a fashion empire while raising some of the cutest children known to mankind. If we ignore the fact that she’s slated to be on The Voice this season, this means she continues to be an amazing role model fifteen years later.

I watched this video incessantly as a teeny-tweener, and we danced like fools to Spiderwebs at every middle school shindig (right before the chicken dance, directly following a thrilling round of YMCA). Good times.

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