September 16th, 2009

Already I'm So Lonesome

I bet if you asked people who know my musical interests whether Jim Carroll was more important to me than Mary Travers, the vast majority would respond with a derisive "Yes." But the truth is that, for all of my appreciation for Carroll's words, Travers mattered a thousand times more.

Because my mom was in college in the early 1960s, when folk music was a big deal with brainy twenty-somethings, the popular music she listened to back them was by artists The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, Theodore Bikel and Peter, Paul and Mary. And that meant that the popular music I listened to as a grade-schooler was by those same artists.

When my father was home we listened almost exclusively to classical music, particularly opera. But when he was away on a business trip or maybe stopping at the store on the way home from work, my mom would trot out her college albums, even though they had been, in her words, "played to death" and therefore forbidden fruit as far as my father's stereo was concerned.

He worried that they would damage his needle. Sometimes, out of deference to this legitimate if somewhat hysterically expressed concern, my mom would play her records on my little sister's record player. But every now and then she would let her rebellious streak rise to the surface and put them on the stereo, defects and all.

I enjoyed all of her records. I still do. But it was Peter, Paul and Mary that made the biggest impression on me. The most obvious reason was that I loved the animated Puff the Magic Dragon special that would air periodically on television. But I also loved the way their harmonies blended together. And I had a schoolboy's crush on Mary, not only because she was pretty -- back then I was captivated by big, strong blondes -- but because her voice conveyed a mystery out of proportion with the band's material. I could pick it out of the mix with ease, despite the delicate smoothness of the band's vocal aesthetic.

In later years, after I'd developed my own tastes in popular music, I sometimes got the urge to lock my affection for Peter, Paul and Mary up in a box. Nevertheless, when their television special came on during PBS pledge drives, I came out to watch. And when my parents took me to Wolf Trap to see them perform, I was excited. I remember getting pissed off at Mary during one show for making a cutting remark about Sting, trying to win over her audience by expressing smug disapproval of newfangled culture. I understood why she did it, given the demographics of the aging crowd. Still, her eagerness to please at the expense of younger generations left a bad taste in my mouth.

Fifteen years later, though, when I became a parent, Peter, Paul and Mary was one of the bands I most wanted my daughter to hear. When we first moved to Tucson and had to navigate the tedious construction zone on River between First and Campbell, a tape of the band's first album, with songs like "Lemon Tree" and "500 Miles" rapidly moved into heavy rotation. And then, a little later, when I swapped it out for a tape of the band's Album 1700, my two-year-old's love of their sound became much more intense.

Skylar especially loved "Leaving on a Jet Plane," which Mary Travers stole from John Denver just as Aretha Franklin had stolen "Respect" from Otis Redding. Over and over we'd rewind the tape to play just that track. But I never grew tired of it. My daughter's joy was as contagious then as it is now, which explains why I've had a blast watching High School Musical films with her, have spent countless hours discussing the finer points of the Harry Potter series, and have even consented to wear outlandish hats and accessories at her behest.

Perhaps it was the timing of her pre-school fixation on "Leaving on a Jet Plane" that made it reach the innermost reaches of my being. We were still new in Tucson and were terribly homesick for the Bay Area, a sensation powerfully enhanced by the fatal illness of Skylar's "Uncle Grandpa," one half of the gay couple that rented the bottom floor of their house to us for many, many years, but were as close as our own families. And I was still recovering -- hell, I still am recovering -- from the brutal case of pneumonia that had felled me the previous November, right after the 2000 Presidential election that also added to the traumatic intensity of everyday life. I was still physically weak and pretty unhappy, too.

In March of 2001, right before we were supposed to leave for another trip to the Bay Area -- we went there a lot during our first few years in Arizona -- we realized that our wonderful twenty-year-old cat, who had still been feisty at Christmas, had reached a critical point in her fight with cancer. Having her put to sleep was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, made even worse by her fighting spirit. And then early the next morning we left on a jet plane.

We decided that we wouldn't tell Skylar until we got back home, so she could grieve in a familiar environment. But that helped make our "vacation" deeply stressful, along with a series of strange complications. When we arrived at the motel in Mendocino where my parents had traveled to join us, we learned that there was no crib for Skylar and, worse still, that we couldn't get one at a reasonable price anywhere nearby. I ended up having to drive all the way to Santa Rosa and back to get a porta-crib.

Shortly after that lengthy trek, I was supposed to drive down to San Francisco to see Stephen Malkmus play at the Fillmore. But I came down with a horrible stomach bug that made it hard for me spend even a few minutes away from a bathroom. Somehow, though, I found the will to get myself to the show and then, after a couple I was great friends with let me crash at their place for a spell, drive all the way back -- we're talking about a trip of nearly four hours here -- to Mendocino.

I mention this driving because even though I'd brought plenty of music on the trip, I listened almost exclusively to the CD-version of Peter, Paul and Mary's Album 1700 I'd picked up for Skylar in small Mendocino shop. The car didn't have a cassette player and she was desperate to hear her favorite song. As it turned out, though, so was I. I must have heard the album at least a dozen times in less than a week.

At the time, I didn't make the connection between the subject of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and our abrupt and psychologically devastating departure from Tucson. Now, though, I can see that something inside me was bent on commemorating our cat's death, as well as our former landlord's, by playing the song that was most tangled in the pain of my first months in Tucson.

I played the song for the first time in ages tonight, in Mary's honor. It brought tears to my eyes, though I rarely cry. I was transported back to the winter of 2000-2001, not to mention my grade-school years. I'm not sure I wanted to go there. But I know I don't want to stay here, a place bound up with a history I refuse to compulsively repeat.