Not, I mean, its definition but, rather, where it belongs in our limited ability to pigeonhole. Is it an element of time? Well, sure, you need to have one thing happen or be seen, and then another, so as to have the set-up and, later, the comparison. But, it seems to have more than just mere chronological procession, with a surprise twist. Is it, then, a force, like gravity, or, less scientifically, like deja vu or precognition, or, dare I say it, Fate? Or is it a place – a place of comfort where things link and make sense and have some order in what appears to be a disorderly universe … a place where one needs to be in order for the click of connection to occur? Or is it all these, and more, in a mess of a metaphysical mashup … or none of these, but instead some involving thing as yet undiscovered and unimagined? Or, maybe, life is entirely made up of coincidence, that it is the brick and the mortar of consciousness and learning and meaning, and that we only perceive it and invoke its name when it is too obvious for our small minds to ignore.
Temporal? Physical? Mystical? Personal? Universal?
Whatever it is, or does, however it gathers together its powers and conjures, or doesn’t, there it was – coincidence – thick in the air and, first of all, on the air, on the radio, as we made our way throughout New England in our recent arslocii-driven road trip.
Those who are young enough to have made their car trips serenaded solely by music stored on and reproduced from CDs, or MP3s, have missed the curiously quaint and painful exploration and depressing joy of being aurally imprisoned on long stretches of remote road with nothing but whatever the car radio can pick up. You drive, one hand on the steering wheel, the other – forefinger extended – poking at the “search” button, looking for something, anything, palatable, possible, to listen to for a while: no Mr. Rights, mostly Mr. Right Nows. To find a station with great music is your hope, and, should you find it, sweet sorrow, because before too long it begins to fuzz and fade, and then it’s gone, and you are back to the hunt: press–talk; press–twang; press–ad, press–ad, press–ad, press–ad; press–classic rock? No, contemporary country; press … . Like the definition of insanity, like the rat in a lab experiment, you keep pressing the button, running the dial’s full spectrum, bottom to top, and then round back to bottom and up the numbers again – press, press, press; maybe this time around, you think, it will be different, all channels miraculously changed, the demagogue at 98.6 supplanted, wondrously, by all-Beatles-all-the-time. You find yourself pausing at stations – programmed in some central studio somewhere and shipped to stations throughout the states, with only locally inserted commercials differentiating them and telling you where you are or are within earshot of – playing collections of oldies, mostly from the ‘70s and ‘80s (which, to those a certain age, seem less like oldies than middle-ies) that they’re packaging as “The Music of Your Time” or “The Soundtrack of Your Life.” And you realize what an immensely inane life you must have lived if this is its soundtrack.
And, suddenly, frighteningly, you find yourself, desperate for connection, singing, loudly, surely, and, you imagine, wonderfully, “Precious and few are the moments we two can share …” and you hate yourself for actually enjoying doing this, for actually knowing – a full two decades since you’d last heard it – all the words, perfectly, all the “ooh-oohs” and precisely when they drop into the song. You despise yourself for remembering and precisely rendering the harmony line … at the top of your lungs. It is dreck, and you know it, but it is your soundtrack, and, there in the far mountains, in a remote valley, in a world of static, it is your lifeline. You would give anything to hear even Chicago, even “Does Anybody Ever Really Know What Time It Is?” Even that. You would give a pint of blood to hear “Walk Away, Renee.”
Press–no. Press–no. Press–absolutely no. Press–no, never, ever. Press–uh, maybe … no. Press–n… wait! And there, somewhere in Connecticut, or maybe it was when we’d crossed into Massachusetts … instantly recognizable, as familiar as a heartbeat, as much a part of my life as anything I’d actually done … a note of the true soundtrack of my soul: “… and I (clash!) can’t find my-y way ho-o-o-ome, and I (pause) can’t find way wa-ay home.” Stevie Winwood. Blind Faith. One of the great rock songs of all time. Clapton. Ginger Baker. Ric Grech. You sing along, this time with feeling and fervor, because this means something to you – you don’t just know this song but, somehow, it knows you. And you sing, as he does, “cahn’t find my way home” although your whole life you have pronounced “can’t” as though the “ca” were the same as in the word “cairn.” No matter – you say “cahn’t,” and can clearly envision that still-slightly-disturbing and weird topless barely pubescent girl on the album cover, and it all brings back how exciting it felt when this music first hit, and you were first-hitting, too. Inscrutable lyrics reflecting the late 60s’ disillusionment, dissolution, even loss and directionlessness, echoes of not just folk music but ancient troubadours … “and I’m wasted and I cahn’t find my way home.”
And then it was done. That’s all we heard – flicking around the dial (although one no longer flicks, and there are no longer any dials), we’d come upon the song, like finding a friend adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean – in its final 42 seconds. The dismay of its ending so close on the heels of the excitement felt upon its belated beginning. Joltingly returned to the world of press–no and “Sugar, Sugar.”
But, eerily, every day of the rest of our journey through New England, occasionally twice a day, but never the same time each day, out on the road, searching, pressing and rejecting, “I can’t find my way home” would suddenly pop up and greet us, on different frequencies and far different locales … and always, always, we would catch it in its last 42 seconds. Bizarre to just short of the point of plan or profundity, almost to the note, to the syllable, we would collide, confer and depart. It became a joke – maybe these radio stations were playing only the last 42 seconds and we were actually catching it from the start. But we ached to hear the song whole, from its first solo guitar to fade out. Just once.
On our next-to-last day, after long hours of fast driving just to make time, in late afternoon we rolled into North Adams, Massachusetts, and to a converted factory complex that is Mass MoCA: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Though museums are like lobsters – the good stuff is inside the hard shell (and is acquired only by being accompanied by a lot of hot air), our quest was, as usual, to explore the outdoor art, the sculpture and earthworks dotting and, with luck, enhancing the periphery of the art building. Alas, there is not much there, not much that’s good, and some no longer intact or functioning. But we followed the directions of a Mass MoCA employee, wound our way behind the main building, where, in an old, abandoned structure – the Boiler Plant – full of long pipes and woven conduit, several flights up steel stairs and connected to this building by a narrow walkway, sort of hanging off the building and propped up on long, spindly trestle legs, was Michael Oatman’s seasonal installation “All Utopias Fell.”
It is, at first sight, the perfect typification of the sort of thing that makes your eyes roll in exasperation with what passes these days as “art”: artspeak made solid, and less a testament to aesthetics or creative thought than to the artist’s ability to play the game required to convince a grant-giving organization to loosen its grip. What it is is an Airstream trailer that’s been tricked out to pretend to be, as accompanying material explains, “a 1970s-era ‘satellite’ that has crash-landed at Mass MoCA … with large parachutes and active solar panels … hybridizing a domestic space, a laboratory and a library, it has the feel of a hermitage, where the occupant will ‘be right back,’ only it is 30 years later.”
Yes. Well. Oh, brother. Another one of those – humorless humor, meaningless meaning, flatline satire, ponderous triviality, fueled by misperceived self-importance. Well, we were there, we’d made the investment of climbing stairs (although, luckily, not the investment of hard-earned cash) and, so, we ducked our heads into the Airstream doorway for what we assumed would be a few seconds of disdainful perusal before making our yikes-filled escape.
Except – it was fascinating. A clever and droll and, actually, challenging piece. George Lucas, describing the scenic design of the first Star Wars, said, “The future should look used.” And, so it was here. Oatman had created a strange retro-future quasi-tomb, almost the result of an archeological dig, something thrown into the present from yesterday by way of tomorrow. Images of the 1939 World’s Fair’s signature Trylon and Perisphere, all sorts of wall scrawlings and images, lots of worn tech, a hippie-ish stained-glass window, the homey touch of a shelf of put-up tomatoes in Mason jars. And all, all of these objects and more, seemed to be referring directly to us and our lives: we are enthralled by the ’39 fair, our home-canned tomatoes look precisely like those on that shelf, the lounge chair in the “capsule” is exactly the model of the same chair we have at home. Everywhere we turned inside that customized trailer – so full and tight that turning was difficult – we seemed to be looking at a deconstruction of our own life, our own inner musings and inclinations and experiences. It was as if “All Utopias Fell” was made for us – like the mentalist in a show who shoots a balloon inside which is an envelope containing the card you’d secretly picked earlier. It seemed to anticipate us.
I made my way slowly, farther back into the Airstream, amid shelves and flickering TV screens and detritus from a future passed. Then – hiss/click, hiss/click, hiss/click … . A sound I knew so well, a sound I hadn’t heard for years. There, down a bit and to my left: a turntable, an LP revolving on it, the tone arm stuck in the smooth, blank space between the end of the groove and the center spindle hole. Hiss/click, hiss/click.
And, as I looked to see what record it was, my eye was caught by something on a ledge below the turntable – the album cover for what was spinning above it. On the cover: the blue of a sky and a white puffy cloud, curly red-ish hair … I pulled the upside-down cover out from the shelf. The dull-expressioned pubescent half-nude girl holding a chrome jet plane stared blankly back at me.
I shifted my gaze to the record, and recognized the label, many years since I’d seen it last. I lifted the tone arm and gently, out of practice, placed it where I knew it should go and what would happen. From some speaker in this art environment, I heard the familiar guitar opening, and then the voice: “Come down off your thro-o-one and leave your body alo-o-one, somebody must change …”
And for 3 minutes and 16 seconds – not in my car, not traveling at 70 mph, not dictated to by mocking fate but, finally, being the recipient of its generosity, I listened to the entirety of “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
From our trip, I brought back home lots of photos, new memories, a sense of accomplishment – and the knowledge that I’d briefly visited a place where, for some reason beyond my pool of understanding and logic, what was, what is and what will be connected, met up, for the first time or again and, somehow, I was there when this co-incidence happened, either witness or participant, or maybe even creator.