~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~
I was lucky enough to sit on the back porch of the Nantucket Hotel on Saturday evening, well out of the passing rain showers and white shirted winos on the street. Instead, I looked into the bottom of glass of bourbon and heard “Fire and Rain” for the three thousandth time. Now, I haven’t minded listening to “Fire and Rain” three thousand times, and I am sure that I will listen to it for another three thousand times before I slip beneath the waves. It remains an affecting song about love and loss, whether it is played on a record player, tape cassette, CD, DVD, digital streaming download, or covered live, on the new back porch of an old hotel on Nantucket.
In the twenty-first century, we grow old listening to the music of our youth. The entire music industry has shaped itself into a repeating wave that serves up the same music again and again. This is not conspiracy foisted on us by aging rockers and greedy producers, rather we demand this. We sit in our cars and demand that the music we listened to in college dorms be replayed for us with perfect fidelity so that it sounds as if James Taylor has just heard the news of Suzanne’s death “yesterday morning,” not fifty years ago.
I am not sure, but I think Carolyn Dateo introduced the song to me when I was a Junior in high school. At the time, she was an artistic and enthusiastic girl that I was too smart to have a crush on, but managed to write to every week or so. In one of her letters, she listed off twenty books she wanted to read (including Cat’s Cradle, The Overcoat, and Troutfishing in America) and sent along a mix tape compiled from music she had recorded off of the radio. Since I didn’t have a crush on her, I didn’t listen to it all of the time and only, by sheer boredom, managed to write down all of the music on it onto a sheet of paper that, somehow, has fallen down the well of time to my current desk. “Fire and Rain” started off the B side of that cassette, along with a list of songs that are currently played a thousand times an hour on Pandora and Spotify.
I would not want to relive my high school years,even if Carolyn promised to go to the Prom with me. I suppose, if I was to be given more money, more confidence, and a dorm room at Phillips Exeter, I might find a way to try again, but if I was to go back to those years and relive them, day to day, song by song, I would find them even more maddening and frustrating now than I found them then.
You know you are old when you start looking back instead of forward. Like Gatsby, we back into the future while staring at the receding past. Except this time, the past has been edited, cleaned, and digitized. Digital hiss has been eliminated from the music, along with static, scratches, and skips. If we want to “Make America Great Again” we have to pretend that America was flawless then and is pretty flawed right now. Politicians would have me believe that sitting on this porch, drinking this drink, and listening to music with friends can somehow be improved upon.
Memorial Day looks forward and backward. It fills with hope for a summer season, with stores, restaurants, and golf courses eager to serve this year’s vacation instagram background. It also echoes all of those other Memorial Days in the past. Nantucket rhymes over and over in the same location, one year to the next, one decade to the next, one generation to the next. The porch I sat on had once been a part of the Gordon Folger, back when the roof sagged, the windows leaked, and it had the only salad bar on-island. This pool, this furniture, these lovely steamship blueprints are all brand-spanking new.
My own Memorial Day brings my son’s birthday followed by my own. As long as we live, we rhyme at the end of May. My son is cresting into his fifteenth year. We celebrated this by making “Slutty Brownies” giving him video games, and watching “Paul Blart, Mall Cop.” It may have been the first birthday in the last ten that did not feature Lego in some form or another. It stops me to think he has outgrown Lego; I want to step back a day or two and buy him another set, just to undo the calendar of his life. I am too young to have a child too old for Lego; my life keeps spinning by. In fact, I am sure that I could buy him a Star Destroyer on Amazon right now and sent it back in time to him.
But to travel back in time would be to lie. It would be to copy your math answers from the back of the book and pretend to have done the work yourself. When I lived through his earlier birthdays, I did not know the young man my son would become, a person capable of poetry, of song, and of truly disturbed cartoons. When he was ten, I fretted over the future while I enjoyed the present. To go back in time would be to whisper in my younger ear “It will all work out.”
I would be far more tempted to really send the hands of time back before I know fire or rain, when I was sixteen years old and spent my birthday at Fenway Park, thinking about Carolyn Dateo. If I could America great again, we would go to the movies. I wouldn’t whisper the happy answer into my young ears. I would instead point out all of the people who would be dead in the near future. I would ask him to hold onto each moment and enjoy every sandwich.
Golden memories of the way things never were grace the heads of life’s victors. The winners have the luxury of refining the tragedy out of their lives. They didn’t lose their houses. They didn’t get wounded. They didn’t die in a far-off war. For us, the victors, the story of the past has a happy ending. “Fire and Rain,” like Memorial Day itself, is about survival. We survived all of our ignorant yesterdays and hope to make it into our sadder tomorrows. We’re here now, in the blessed present, toasting the boring hope of more days just like this one.