YESTERDAY, the high lonesome highway. The countryside has a certain Prohibition-era flavor to it. The abandoned, splintering houses, lost to time and graffiti. That empty bottle of whiskey tossed carelessly into a desert-like wheat field at some desperate moment in the winter, only to be revealed by the thaw, like some ancient mastodon. Sometimes I wonder about the local indigent people who might shelter in these discarded structures on the outskirts of the town. Maybe they make bonfires at night and play harmonica. What kinds of horrors have these broken walls seen? In India, I once saw a man sleeping curled up in a rug by the side of the road. I imagine it was something like that, only colder and more forlorn. The countryside is blooming though, stubbornly. One can hear birds in the trees, singing. The birds are social. The people not so much. I have done this route many times, down to the lake, past the Baltic German cemetery in the woods. Sometimes I revisit one spot where I went swimming with a particular lady friend, though our peculiar brand of friendship has since been dissolved. Then it’s back out onto those long elevated roads. Other walkers come by, but nobody looks at you. It would seem that this would be the most opportune occasion to exchange some kind of pleasantries, or to acknowledge each other’s existence. Two strangers meet along a lonely highway on a cool but sunny spring day. I don’t expect much, you know. I understand that this is not California, and there will be no “have a great day” wished upon me by some passing jogger. Still, a nod might do. Or some eye contact. There is nothing. Yesterday, a young woman walked right past me. She was within arm’s distance. I looked to her, just to acknowledge that we existed along the same plane of reality. The wind was playing with her straw-colored hair. Her face was pale, as were her eyes. She looked like an extra from one of those Netflix Viking dramas. I wondered what she was thinking about. It must have been very important. Maybe she was wondering about what school she might get into, or how much her cousin Tõnu’s new car cost. “I wonder how much it cost? I wonder, I wonder.” Then it occurred to me that maybe she didn’t see me. Maybe I was invisible. What other explanation could there be? I didn’t know when my invisibility began to manifest itself. Naturally, the girl didn’t say hello. She couldn’t see me.
THIRTY YEARS from now, where will we all be? In 2053? In the yard, sipping espresso, or shots of limoncello, or playing bocce ball? God, I hope so. Then someone will put on Pinkerton. “I don’t want to be an old man anymore.” And Rivers Cuomo will still be writing songs, somewhere. And Weezer will still be putting out color-coded albums, somewhere. That’s where we’ll be, in the yard, playing bocce ball and listening to “Across the Sea,” with grandchildren or great-grandchildren on our knees. We’ll be sunning ourselves tranquilly, by the seaside, beneath the beach pine canopy. That’s where I’ll be in ’53.
i saw you
I SAW YOU the other day, in the shop, buying cognac or vodka or something with astronomically high alcohol content at about ten minutes to closing time. I saw you there in your scarf but you didn’t see me. I didn’t want you to see me, because I wanted to let you be over there, in that new, more manageable universe you have created around yourself, the one where I no longer exist. I’m not actually sure if it was the same you I saw though. Maybe you no longer exist either, or at least the way I once knew you. Maybe that’s over. I remember how just a few years ago we were drinking wine together in your rented room overlooking the street and had some young friends over. We got down and kneeled beside each other and were praying and laughing. What was so funny? I can’t even remember what the joke was. I remember the candles though, and the taste of the wine. That’s one memory I have. It’s just a memory and maybe there is no point in writing about it or talking about it. “Sometimes,” you told me tersely toward the end, “people just go their separate ways.” I did try to forget about you. In fact, I had almost erased you. You were nearly deleted, and when I went in there that night, my spirits were high and my soul was swinging. I wasn’t even upset by seeing you in the back there, with him. You mostly looked the same, or at least your eyes had the same visible vibrance. You always did have beautiful eyes. I will at least acknowledge that. I went to the other side and stood over there so you wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble of seeing me. I waited for a while and read a special magazine about the German occupation. When I looked back, you were gone.
the french riviera
I WAS KICKED out of bed and lost for a good while. Then I reached a mountain village, up in the hills beside the French Riviera. I had to go to the diva’s house. Brynhild. She was on tour somewhere, performing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, with valkyrie headdress. She left me multiple envelopes full of instructions on what I was to do and not to do while in her palazzo. Inside, there were mountains of old records piled up. Earth, Wind & Fire. Nina Simone. Neil Diamond. It was so dark inside, and yet bright, because all of the interiors were painted white. It was cold, like an ice palace in the mountains. Her dog was there, sniffing around. The house was so cold, especially after the sun went down on the Riviera, and I was up there, all alone. She told me that I had to get a fire started in the furnace, but I didn’t feel like it. I was just too tired for fires and decided to sleep. When Brynhild arrived back from the concert, still wearing her headdress, the house was cold and she was disappointed. Brynhild scolded me and went to wash herself.
here comes the ocean
WHO IS SHE? Wouldn’t you like to know. Sometimes you only catch a glimpse of her, out of the corners of your eyes. You think you see her coming your way down the street, or that you see her from behind at the shop, examining some bananas, but then she turns around and you realize that it isn’t her and you are disappointed. Sometimes the girl has the same scarf, same build, same boots, same way of walking, but it’s not her. Another good question might be, what is it that makes her who she is? That one is also difficult to answer. You just don’t know. Idiot poets struggle and wrestle and hassle themselves with such questions. Idiot painters too. They keep painting, and the songsmiths keep writing, just trying to get it all down on record or on paper. Is it in the curves of her eyes, the way that she walks, the sound of her voice? God no. There is some kind of radio signal broadcasting from the bosoms of people and hers is the one that is hitting you the strongest, starting to reverberate in your core. The sound continues to fill you. Sound is one word. It’s also like seawater. Remember, how you used to go and swim at the seaside as a child, and you could feel its waves pulsing through you hours later when you were all sandy and sleeping in the back seat on the long car ride home? That’s what it’s like. It fills you from end to end, rolling like the waves, from the hairs on the crest of your head to the final peninsulas of your toes and back again. Naturally, I tried to get away to preserve my autonomy. I told myself all kinds of pleasant lies to distract myself from the truth. She was too young or too old. Too fat or too thin. Her voice was too high or too low. Whatever I was, it was too much or too little. I was overly abundant and inadequate. However the math squared, it would never work out. But math is wicked and deceptive. Thoughts are self-sabotaging. And sometimes there really is no way out. The only way to go is in. I don’t see her always, but she is always there, just beyond sight, a blurred figure at the end of a misty street. The last time I saw her in real life at a birthday party, she was stunning. It was as if someone had cut a piece of the night-time sky away with a pair of scissors and made a woman from this celestial fabric. All of the little lies I had told myself were washed away. I thought everything was normal and tried to convince myself such, but about half an hour later, I started to feel that pull again. The mighty ocean had picked me up and was tossing me about with its heavy waves. I was being sucked out into water. I confided in my friend about what was going on, and she said that it all sounded beautiful. “Go with those waves,” she told me. “Ride them.”
AND THEN I whispered to her, that we are no longer in a cold house in a cold town, and that we are actually beneath a waterfall in a tropical jungle, and she began to purr like a kitten. This was its own kind of love, a sensual love, a true love. Love isn’t only theatre tickets, dresses and ties, dangling earrings, vacation getaways, social media posts, and anniversaries. That’s bourgeois love. Sensual love is another sort of love, an untreated, crude, imperfect and raw love. Just the way I like it.
LAST NIGHT I GOT TO TALK about the blues with Volkonski (the title of our discussion at the Pärimusmuusika Ait was “can a white man understand the blues”). It’s part of a series of discussions where a foreigner discusses the music of their homeland. I chose the blues to represent the US, because, as Morgan Freeman says, the blues is America’s classical music. We listened to Muddy Waters (“Got My Mojo Working“), John Lee Hooker (“Decoration Day“), Howlin’ Wolf (“Little Red Rooster“), Willie Dixon (“Hoochie Coochie Man“), Robert Johnson (“Hellhound on My Trail“) and I insisted on including Jimi Hendrix (“Machine Gun“). We also played “Commit a Crime” off The Rolling Stones’ 2016 Blue & Lonesome album and a tune by Gary Moore. For modern day tastes, I included The Black Keys (“Crawlin Kingsnake“) off Delta Kream (2021).
I was asked about how I found out about the blues. My memory failed me, but on the way home, I remembered watching The Blues Brothers on TV when I was about eight or nine years old, and telling my third grade teacher, Mrs. Vreeland, the next day that I couldn’t do my math homework, because “I was too busy watching The Blues Brothers.” That movie included performances by John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and even Cab Calloway (yes, he was still alive). Years later, in high school, a friend and I picked up the “mission from god,” and formed our own soul band (which needs to reform).
During the discussion, we also discussed blues folklore. The West African origins of the word “mojo”, which comes from the Fula language and means “witchcraft,” or what exactly a John the Conqueroo Root is. I also described the concept of a nation sack, where a person, usually a woman, collects some personal items of a man she wants to control, and keeps them in a tiny sack that she carries on her at all times. I also was asked to define the term “Hoochie Coochie Man.” “Hooch” is liquor, and moonshine in particular. “Cooch” is slang for a woman’s sex organs. A “Hoochie Coochie Man” likes drinking and sex. The Estonian translation was “handsa-tussu mees” or “puskari-vittu mees.” A “kõva vend” as Prince Peeter Volkonski said.
The blues were the music of the lower classes along the Delta, the Mississippi River, and later in the northern cities. It was the music of the Hoovervilles made of cardboard and metal houses, of gambling and prostitution, and crime, in general. It was the music of people who didn’t know when they were born, or could barely write. It was called the devil’s music. But, as Volkonski said, you could listen to the gospel in church in the mornings and sing the blues all night.
We agreed that a white man could understand (“mõista” also translates as intuit, or recognize) the blues, but we weren’t sure if a European could ever play it with as much grease, dirt, and soul as Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. It gets inside you, but it’s almost impossible to copy. Many have tried, but only few have succeeded. He praised the Stones’ album as being as close to the genuine article as you could get. “It’s almost as if it was recorded by a completely different band,” he said. Volkonski loves this music and spoke passionately about it. He’s a true Blues Brother or “bluusivend.”
all is quiet on new year’s day
my love, she speaks like silence
I NEED SO LITTLE from the world these days. My heart is reformed and realigned, so fat, plump, warm, and content. What a funny solstice, everything turns, everything is now like this. This is how it works. It comes into you and remakes you over. For just a few shimmering moments on the solstice night, she was the most beautiful person anywhere, who may have ever existed, and maybe even the most beautiful phenomenon in existence. If there were stars in the sky, then she was the brightest and most flaming of them, and if planets could be seen by the naked eye, then hers was the most incandescent. Of course, this phenomenon of love merits study. Love is warm, pulsating. It is not stagnant. Love wants to move, love wants to flow, love goes with the currents. Love is natural and as alive as nature. But what do we do with love, this phenomenon that requires nothing to be done to it? We try to contain it, define it with words and ideas, crank out paperwork and bureaucracy. We forge it into golden and silver rings. We try to make serendipitous and bizarre things out of love, sculptures and buildings. What comes of it? Does love seep into the upholstery? Can you spray yourself with it, like a fine perfume? Does it even deserve a word or words, ideas, concepts, shapes and galleries? Music boxes with a spinning ballerina, fixed in place, that you can take out from time to time and watch and observe? Wax figures on a frosted cake? I could just sweep this all away like chimney ash and reduce it to nothingness, but there is something here. There’s no more reason to talk about it though, this pure and undulating thing. It requires no words. Nothing needs to be done to it or for it. Love fulfils itself. Sometimes though when I see something or hear something, I am reminded of love. I recognize that it exists, just like that red planet in the sky, or those transmitting stars or you, sitting there quietly in a corner. It exists and it emits. I would rather just let it be and breathe, sit and incubate inside of me. I know it will hurt one day, if it is taken away. But we all know that good love never really leaves you. No, never. Good love never leaves. It lingers.
phil groia stories
PHIL GROIA WAS MAYBE the best teacher I ever had. He was an expert on 1950s doowop and knew a lot of blues players, like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal. He taught 9th grade social studies. I remember how we watched the film Gandhi in class, which is over three hours long. A student complained and Groia shot back, ‘Why don’t we watch a three-hour film about your life? I’m sure it would be more interesting!’ A young Groia was on the way to school in 1947 when he heard on the news that Gandhi had been assassinated. The last time I saw Groia was in Port Jefferson around the year 2000. He was complaining about getting harassed by Giuliani’s NYPD, and had befriended a much, much younger woman he met on the train. “I didn’t know how old she was!” he told me. Man, you were larger than life!
He passed away in 2014.
Groia had a longstanding misunderstanding with another teacher, who, incidentally, also did not like me very much. One day Groia took me aside and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s not even a conservative Republican. He’s to the right of fascist.” This was probably how I was sorted into the left wing. I could have become another fascist, easily, but Groia intervened, like a liberal guardian angel.
Groia also liked to talk about his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He was born circa 1940 himself. Back then, in the Truman era, they would get small milk containers (you know the kind, in tiny cartons, the standard containers you get in public school) with their meals. But Groia and his classmates would weaponize the milk and launch the containers over the fence at other unsuspecting classmates at recess. They made good milk bombs, he said.
Because of his interest in doowop, Groia was at times invited to high profile events. He was the author of, “They All Sang on the Corner: A Second Look at New York City’s Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups” (1983). He described being basically the only white person at one event, where he was seated next to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Supposedly, he and Chuck D got on quite well. I wish I had been there.
After the ridiculous excesses of the 1980s, the ’90s were a time of sobriety and/or dark drugs, nihilism, and serious dudes wearing black clothing. Dayglo, hair metal, Lacoste, and acid wash were out, black turtlenecks and The X-Files were in. Groia would wear a black turtleneck and sit at the head of the room with his coffee cup talking about Gandhi. He no doubt drank his coffee black, as he was such a serious dude. The inscription on the cup read, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”