The Perennial Question of Existence Print E-mail

St._Cecilia_Guido_Reni(Written 2005 - 2009)

How perfectly alone I felt that Labor Day weekend, 1972, staying at the YMCA in Madison, Wisconsin, getting ready, after a two-year hiatus, to reenter college. I had a tiny room, maybe ten by ten, a bed, a desk. I’d paid extra for the privacy. I loved the solitude: no parents, no job, no girlfriend. Never before was I so alone—and never since. I’d rise at dawn, sit in the straight-back chair at the desk with two drawers; it reminded me of the varnished desk and the blotter pad on top where I did my homework as a kid in Ohio. At the Y, I’d work through the morning. The heat slowly built until the brown-brick tiles radiated steam like a sauna. By noon, I was cooked and I’d go for a swim in Lake Mendota. Back at my desk, my guitar would be on my lap, my writing journal open before me. My attentions would alternate. Either I noted down the rough cut of a song, chords and lyrics, or I sketched in prose my latest anxiety, trying to say exactly what it was I was after by re-enrolling, this time at the University of Wisconsin. A home? A direction? A career? Those queries voiced in words alone only intensified what I couldn’t answer. Eventually my fingers dropped the pen and I picked up the guitar. As I played, my worry lessened, then dissolved.

That ax was my pal, a $99 yellow-blond Yamaha FG-140. I’d bought it in Nashville nine months earlier on my way to Louisiana with a buddy; we worked in the Gulf of Mexico on boats supplying equipment to oil rigs. At fifteen, I’d taught myself guitar, shelved it during my first stint in college, and was now re-animated. I was pushing myself beyond a strummer, an accompanist. My fingers had ambitions: how much I could teach myself just by listening, just by feeling my way. The playing style I liked was called fingerpicking. The thumb of the right hand alternates a pattern on the bass strings while the fingers pluck the treble, melody and chords; on the guitar’s neck, the left hand fingers make the chord changes. The player’s hands on a guitar curl back toward him. The right hand, laying over the sound hole, seems to stir its chambered darkness to life. The right hand also aims at the guitarist’s gut. When playing, both vessels roil—the guitar’s box and the player’s somatic soul. The fingers sound and resound the strings: without incessant plucking the vibration fades at once. It’s why an acoustic guitar seems intimate and tentative, boyishly romantic.

I could feel the guitar beckoning me to stay with it—its literal embrace, held on my lap, tucked against my chest, enwrapped in my arms. It felt mine, a meditative tool, which might re-route my wandering, unstop the clog I felt at twenty-two that I should have arrived by now at the start of the road, my road, the long and tortuous way of the artist. That way I was certain had already been laid out for me. Its only demand was that I find it.

As much as I held the guitar to me, protected by its shapely wooden hull, the songs and instrumentals I played went out, away from me, into the world. And it has struck me since that the song going into the world is the point, as though song, an entity all its own, chooses the impassioned young to bear its message. A singer-songwriter-guitarist wields power because the song—at folk festivals and coffeehouses, antiwar rallies and Boy Scout camp—has big audiences, invites the call-and-response of a culture much larger than the tempest-toss of any soloist. In our time, the voice of the singer rules. But then, the person singing was important only in so far that the song got sung.

The fingerpicking minstrels were part of the folk music boom in the 1960s. I loved the sauciness of a singing voice and a talking guitar—Mississippi John Hurt and "Spikedriver Blues," Dave Van Ronk and the "St. Louis Tickle," Bob Dylan’s "Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right." Dylan synchronized words and music especially well, telling in this tune how he ended it with Suzy Rotolo, his beaming, beautiful girlfriend on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The fingerpicking part is twice as fast as the melody—and very tough to play—but it gives the piece the busyness of leaving its lyrics portray. Against the guitar, the sung lines need clear enunciation: "Goodbye is too good-a word, babe." The "goodbye" fast-slow; the "too" accented; the "good-a" less stressed, and the vowel of "word" held and twisted around a blue note.

When I copied Dylan’s lines into my songbook and compared them to the recording, I noted how different the tune was from an everyman folk song like "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." With Dylan there was an author who had lived what he sang: "I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul; but don’t think twice, it’s all right." How exactly that line echoed my affair with a young Christian woman, Terri, whose seventeen months’ passion had just ended. I was so taken by her lustrous green eyes, her dry lips, the frame of her golden brown, middle-parted, Judy-Collins hair. She lived in Kansas City, Missouri, and I, half-a-state away, in Columbia. We wrote letters testifying to our consuming and confused love. I was an "endless wind" in her hair. She was a "bride of Christ." And we dallied over "Why is it that what we feel we are also afraid of?" On weekend visits, we argued, we pouted, we despaired until, exhausted, we held each other like storm victims. But once she realized that her salvation through Jesus, which had combusted at a tent revival when she was a teen, could not accommodate my indifference to Him, we were done. And I was over it. Mostly.

Dylan’s craggy delivery in "Don’t Think Twice" gave the tune its autobiographical bent. His farewell felt universal because of its personal honesty. I sang and played my loss through Dylan’s tune. The loss eased somewhat with the playing. Before long I felt the gruff eulogy and the blame placed on the other for pushing him away described my leaving as well. I especially like the sexual turn of "we didn’t do too much talkin’ anyway." But I could not have authored that line. Terri and I, with our long righteous discussions of paintings and the Greeks and William Blake, were too mired in our intellects to make it sexually. It was, as if we’d fallen in love inside a Victorian novel.

The seamlessness of lyric and tune cracked another door. The fact that Dylan had written the song and sung it meant he had made art out of life. Living is one thing; the persona we adopt for our performing selves' self is quite another. Copying Dylan’s song, I donned the mask. Mimicking the tune, I enacted love gone wrong. Once my love went wrong and I sang of it using his means, I felt his authenticity and the possibility of it in me.


Hours passed, all this circling through my head, singing out my hands, until I remembered why I was in Madison. My first two years at the University of Missouri I loaded up on literature, read the English poets and playwrights, and penned stories, fictionalized from a summer spent hitchhiking to San Francisco. I dropped out of school to work worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and tow boats on the Mississippi River. But, being too long among angry and violent men, I made a decision. Go back to college. Major in what I valued. In my admissions’ essay to UW, I boasted that I would parlay poetry, Chinese ideograms, and American speech habits into a "creative writing" major. I imagined linking language, graphics, and sound in a new incantatory, rising-off-the-page art form. A voiced poetry, I called it, music for eye, ear, and mind. In my journal, I tried counterpointing these things much like the playful New York poet, Ron Padgett. I loved the visual workout of his sound-poem "Nothing In That Drawer":

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

I tried one of my own:


























How intriguing: a poem you had to see in order to get.

I assumed my essay and a few graphic poems got me in. And yet that had been months ago. I was no longer crafting these verse oddities. And part of me knew they were little more than clever. Relieved, I would nest in long sessions with my guitar.

Until I’d gone down, I hadn’t realized how deep music was in me. I’d touched some of its urgency when I started a folk-rock band in junior high and sang in the high-school choir. But in those groups I was a spoke on the wheel. Soloing on guitar, I was the wheel. To author, like Dylan, words and music—plus play what you had written for others—seemed to tune the sympathetic strings of self and world. Beneath it was an aesthetic truth: that pungent lyrics and a shapely melody could not only buoy each other but also convey far more than the words or the music could on their lonesome.


One Saturday, I wandered with my guitar through a craft fair that circled the capital. Watercolorists and weavers and potters galore. I walked onto the glossy white-enameled pier that stuck out onto the lapping shore of the lake. On a bench I brushed off glassy droplets of water. My guitar uncased, I started singing a new tune I’d written. It was called "Back Bayou," a pun to get me "back by you,"meaning her, any her, actual or mythic didn’t matter. The last stanza went:

I left on a pogey for the fishin’ season

Got busted in Campeche and they weren’t teasin’

And I wish all day, to be back bayou

And it’s like that they tell me I can moan all I want

But without the right papers I’m stuck like a swamp

And Mexico’s nice, but it ain’t back bayou.

The lake sloshed against the pier’s pilings while a man and a woman gazed above the sun-dappled main. I sang on, loud and forceful. When I finished, the woman asked, "Where did that come from?""Oh, that? That’s on one of Johnny Cash’s albums."

"Really," she said. "I thought I’d heard all those records. Was it an early one?"

"Yes," I said, "very early."

Odd: my moment of recognition is transformed into my moment of anonymity: I haven’t as yet earned the right to call it mine. Besides, what did it matter that I lie. The self I aspired to then was a persona or mask.

"May I give you something?" she said. I nodded. Out came a picture, looking handmade. Centered on edge-torn white construction paper were three elongated colored triangles—bird-like shapes with black dots for eyes—each poised on a stick branch. The inscription read:

a bird

does not sing because

he has an answer

he sings


he has a song

Part of me saw its wrapped-in-plastic tackiness, its garage-assembled craft as kitsch. Part of me saw its graphic poetry, its textual plotting, its colored array. Part of me saw the artist’s compulsion to be seen and heard. Handing it to me like a grail, the woman said, "Here. From one artist to another."


How sweet it would be if such piety—I’m an artist and so are you—actually equaled its claim. Alas, all such anointing does is sharpen the question: What is an artist? It’s too big to answer. A good definition spans the spectrum. Each artist is derivative and original; actor and director; performer and composer; diarist and author; confessor and orator; a virtuoso jack of all trades. And what of the twin-born: Homer, the poet-singer; Sibelius, the symphonic-painter; Wagner, the music-dramatist? It’s an intrigue, why it is that artists intermarry one form with another. An answer to the artist query may lie in beguiling a more personal question as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado does: What have you done / with the Garden / that was entrusted to you?

Nonetheless, the woman’s gift was gratifying. I spent another week in my Y room alone, her picture propped up on the desk, its message resounding like a wind chime. I spoke to no one. Tired of music and writing, I’d head to the library and sit on the cool concrete floor, between the stacks, the lit section, reading at random as I’d done as an adolescent. Was I really heading back to college? Lectures, textbooks, note-taking, scholarship, which I wasn’t opposed to—and yet, hadn’t they already annualized my life: from kindergarten to sophomore in college, fifteen straight years of calendared thinking, September-to-May. No wonder I quit college and wandered away.

If I were to study the graphic potential of poetry, what place would music and the guitar have in my creative major? I wish I could say now that I recognized how categorical my dual enthrallments for words and for music were but I didn’t know then. Remembering Rilke, I felt the whole, not its seams. Still, I’d like to think some coming self was asking, to what degree are these raptures born in us; to what degree are they mirrored for us in the work of those artists we gravitate to; to what degree are these Sirens cross-bred in us like good and bad traits in an outlaw?

I did realize that no matter how much I wanted words to move on the page, they wouldn’t. They were mute and motionless. If poems were Baptists, I was anti-Baptist. Writing was my mode of thinking. No? Yes. I still kept a notebook, putting down ideas in long freewheeling paragraphs, often on Greyhound bus rides. At twenty, I’d written a novel about an angst-ridden boy, growing up in northern Wisconsin. I wasn’t myself unless every few days I got some words down. I could keep writing: sound and rhythm weren’t the moon and the stars.

Something clicked. I wrote a quick letter instructing my parents, my funding source, that I was not going back to school but instead would follow my musical calling. As I wrote, I could feel their dismay from St. Louis, where my dad was nearing retirement. Gales of disapproval wafted north: the boy, probably uneducable, two times a dropout. I checked out of the Y. With backpack and guitar case in hand, which always got me a ride, I thumbed to East Lansing, Michigan, to see a friend I had met while traveling across Canada, the summer of Woodstock. It turned out he was doing the same thing I was: teaching himself guitar. I rented a room, and he and I, many a post-work evening (I helped a carpenter frame houses that winter) showed each other licks and runs and riffs as we learned them off records.

One evening, on the campus of Michigan State, I had a good seat in a filled hall for Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. I’d already heard "Satin Doll" and "Take the A Train." Such standards were as quintessentially American as anything in the folk realm. Ellington was a goldmine: songs, suites, sacred music, collaborations with Billy Strayhorn and Ella Fitzgerald, the arranging and composing he did for his star players many of whom had toured with him for forty-plus years by the time I heard him live. Duke would die two years later at seventy-five. That night I caught a still vital twenty-man band with longtime players tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and trumpeter Cootie Williams featured on quick stand-up solos or extended wild-horned improvs. Some of those solos, I would learn later, Ellington had actually written out.

Midway through the concert, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney came off the stage and stood down front, inside the ivory white halo of a spotlight. There he played "I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)," which was a signature piece of the late Johnny Hodges. Carney tongued the tune’s opening swoon and, Holy Shit! My eyes rolled up in my head. That was the most sensual sax solo I’d ever heard—each entrance slightly delayed, the leaping blue and purple tones finessed with honey-lipped legato slurs, the goal never to hit the note straight on but to tease it into being, Carney’s tribute to Hodges’s reed-caressing carnality. When the tune settled to an end, Ellington, whose hippyish flip of long hair graced his velvet collar, bellowed to the audience, "Harry Carney, ladies and gentlemen, Harry Carney." It was heavenly sonorous and, I realized, a nightly occurrence.

For two hours I floated in the band’s rarefied sound. I’d love to say here’s exactly what they played but this is close: moist blends of saxes/clarinets/trombones during "In a Sentimental Mood"; Ferrari-like precision of "Daybreak Express"; rackety esprit of reeds/trombones/trumpets tossing riffs back and forth on "Jack the Bear." And the joy Ellington exuded as bandmaster. Laughing, jabbering, punching his approval out loud as he called a title and snapped four intro beats sideways with his fingers. None of the sacred silence that classical musicians and choirs observe. An almost belittling disregard of that tradition. Ellington rushed into each tune as if he couldn’t wait to hear yet again what he himself had written.

To some listeners, the intoxication of jazz obscures the music’s origin. Duke’s players were born around 1900; they’d traversed Jim Crow and lynchings, Civil Rights and inner-city riots. These men and their families were directly linked to slavery and its birth as a Sunday art: front-porch spectacle, for the master, loosened into jazz, behind which were back-porch sorrows, for the African, wailed into blues. Slavery’s shadow haunted the serrated edges of the songs, the taunting digs of the sidemen. The aesthetic weight of Ellington’s music was inseparable from its history, its beauty bound equally to a people’s freedom and their oppression.


Come spring, I returned to Missouri, to Columbia, the college town I’d left three years earlier. I wanted to live near my older brother Steve who resided in Hallsville, fifteen miles north. There, with two buddies, I moved into a broken-down farmhouse. It was drafty, but we lived rent-free in exchange for repairs—glazing and weather-proofing new windows, rehanging old doors, refurbishing an out-building into a chicken coop. Our three-man combine went back to the land, on the cheap. We did odd jobs. We planted a garden. We quit work mid-afternoon and leapt naked into the cow pond. Hedonists, we tended a communal hearth. Nights were given to booze and marijuana, though I had quit pot: I’d taken one too many drugs in San Francisco in my triumphal campaign to get a psychological deferment from serving in Vietnam. Soon four or five cars were parked in the farm’s driveway, of which only one or two started in the cold dawn. I drove a school bus mornings and afternoons, earning enough to alternate working on the farm with playing the guitar.

In like manner, the country, sickened by President Nixon’s lying on TV, was ready for a rebirth. I felt the culture shift when, suddenly, a turn-of-the-century dance music for band or solo piano was the most popular musical style in America: ragtime. The album on every turntable was Piano Rags of Scott Joplin, by Joshua Rifkin.

Ragtime mixes an elegance in its tunefulness and chordal stretch (unlike folk or pop music, the tune actually changes key) with a stately dance pulse. Melodies fit wind instruments or a pianist’s right hand. The hallmark of its style is syncopation: a strong beat is countered by a melody that’s emphasized on the weak beat. It’s simple to get on the piano. The left hand pounds the beat, the right, the melody. An accented melody against a driving beat: dueling stresses.

I soon discovered ragtime was playable on the guitar. The style sounded lighter on the six-string, less dense and less percussive than its piano version. I leapt into this music, its high-stepping march irresistible. I mimicked what I heard on records but learned faster by transcribing sheet music. Within months, I’d arranged several Joplin pieces: "Maple Leaf Rag," "Original Rags," and "The Entertainer," darling of the movie, The Sting.

My hard work paid off. One night at a party and during a lull in the talk, I launched Joplin’s "Maple Leaf Rag." The tune pulsed and danced, lilted and sang, until I was aware that the dozen or so people were tuning into what they’d been hearing on those Rifkin records: I was playing a music already theirs. But I was the one playing. I wanted to look at their reactions. Yet, with such difficult finger work—it was like driving a mountain road in a sports car—I had to watch every move I made. I realized, halfway in, that their reactions were also in the music I was making—what I felt and projected, they felt and projected back to me and each other. It mattered not that I saw them; I felt them well enough. I pushed on and ended with an anti-flourish. Joplin would have approved. They applauded. A few cheered. One whistled. The clapping went on until I smiled. And someone said, "Wow, that white boy can play."

Practice (and my desire to practice) had made me a good musician, which, in turn, made me public. People wanted to hear me. The whole reason then to go back to my room, make lists, transcribe tunes, write scores. Focus, man, focus! Show them what else you can do!


In Hallsville, Steve, who had a woodworking degree from the University, several musician friends, and I often met to swap tunes, play poker, or shoot the breeze at Nancy Ann Carter’s house. Nancy lived beside the railroad tracks, a crossroads of sorts for those who squatted in town and those who landed on nearby farms like me. Already a blue-ribbon cook, Nancy was a gifted gardener. She tended pole beans, rhubarb, watermelon, and a big plot of sweet corn. She canned, she baked, she knitted, she sewed. She had voluptuously large eyes, thick curly black hair, movie-star cheek bones. She wore denim shorts rolled way up, a handmade flour-sack shirt, which she bow-tied just above her exposed flat tummy. When we played tunes in the buggy Coleman-lantern light of her backyard, she brought us homemade apple pie, spiced with raisins, walnuts, or cheese. She laughed at our dopey humor. She served up seconds. She flirted. Everyone liked her.

Oh yeah, Nancy also had a husband.

His name was Don, and he was jealous. Who could blame him. But he was jealous—less of her availability and more of her attachment to my friends and me. Don Carter sold paint supplies in a coat and tie while the rest of us avoided—and belittled—the grind. When we had summer picnics, he’d wear his overalls to look country. He reminded me of those pretty-boy extras on Hee Haw, who had trouble smiling and clapping to the beat at the same time. One night, after we’d occupied his backyard way past dark, he demanded that Nancy close it down.

The next Saturday Nancy and Don had a yard sale. I was there, playing my guitar on the front porch while they priced the many items. In addition to waffle irons and lampshades, end tables and lawn mowers, there was a box of Don’s sweaters.

"Nancy, what’s this?" he said. "You’re selling my sweaters? I told you I want to keep them."

Embarrassed, Nancy tried to laugh it off, gazing at me forlornly. Had she thought she could get away with it?

Just then she did something that froze my fingers. She put a large cardboard box on her head. She waited, it seemed, challenging Don with her sarcasm. He grabbed the sweater box and stomped back in the house. A grand exit. Kittenish, Nancy peeked out from under the box. "Is he gone?"

I burst out laughing and so did she. Her petulant husband spent the day busying himself in the garage. I filled the time making up little ditties about the box-headed woman before me.

Oh the box-head knows she’s been very, very bad,

Singing polly wolly doodle all the day;

Since her husband gets so very, very mad,

Singing polly wolly doodle all the day.

Fare thee well, fare thee well,

Fare thee well my Nancy fay . . .

I began inviting Nancy for suited swims in our pond. I accompanied her on trips to auctions where she bid low, stayed low, and won lots of oaken furniture. Her savvy was remarkable: she would say, when the bid went high, "I don’t need a hutch that bad." She and Don were opening an antique shop in our one stoplight town, where drivers from Columbia liked to slum on weekends. During the week, with Don at work, she and I went to Mennonite farms to get household goodies dirt cheap. One day, she bought a weaving loom, big as an outhouse. Don said it wasn’t going in the living room. The back porch, maybe. It took two days to set up the walnut monstrosity, its pendulous beater, swinging like a gallows. She took lessons from a ninety-year-old local, who taught her to use plastic bread wrappers, tied together in super long strings, to weave rugs. After Don and Nancy’s shop opened, I would sit in the shop and play my guitar. I liked fleeing my room and came by most weekends while she stripped furniture and Don jawed with the occasional customer. It was a pleasure to play for people who liked my style.

Another Saturday Nancy asked me to help her move a loom from Blackwater, Missouri, an hour’s drive away. Don was in St. Louis visiting his ailing mother. A sultry day, we wore short-shorts and T-shirts. She and I got a late start, and it took time to close the deal. She paced and dickered and lolled for two hours until the owner cut his price in half. We dismantled the beast and loaded it ourselves. Heading back, it was late, dark. The cooling humid air and the smell of weeds from the riverbank wafted across our hot bodies.

I decided to sing her a song I’d written. It was about Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet whose surreal work, challenging traditions of verse and church, I had read, in translation, after dropping out of college. I imagined his death in Charleville, his hometown, whose first few lyrics came to me in a dream.

I began, slowly fingerpicking, treading oddly between three-quarter and four-quarter time, C to Em to F, with no dominant chord, that is, no strong resolution. I came upon that hallowed boy in the Charleville square / Who took his life most seriously and his dying with all more care. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, why I, the narrator, was banging on the doors of the burning cathedral and begging them to take his soul, whose martyrdom I believed the church desperately needed. Toward the Easter sun the rose window glared / And at the boy who’d been greatly loved in the Charleville square.

When I finished, I knew a meaning didn’t matter. The having sung it to her did.

"That song makes me feel like some part of you wanted only me to hear it," she said.

She was right.

Nancy turned off the road then. She said, pushing the column shift to idling park, that she wasn’t sure her taillights were working. The pot-holed shoulder she pulled over on was weed-edged and cricket-loud. We got out and went to the rear. The reflectors glowed, the engine exhaust purred.

I said to her, "Nancy? I want to show you something on this side of the van."

She walked with me and said, "What?"

I stood before her, slipped my thumbs into the belt loops of her cut-offs, and drew her to me. She did not tremble. I said, "This."

I kissed her—and she kissed me in return.

"I knew you were going to do that," she said, and laughed.

We kissed again, deeper, stomachs pressing. I could feel her thighs give way.

The next day we slept together. The next month she filed for divorce. A week later she moved in with me. In my room, big enough for bed and desk, she nailed a nail to the wall and hung her straw hat. I wrote her a jaunty song—first of many—with the refrain, Hey, darling, come along with me and won’t you be my bride; hey, darling, come along with me, lay your body down by my side. How much she would love that tune, insist I play it for her friends and family, beam and sing along as though it had already hit the charts. Because her personality was so freckly and buoyant, I renamed her Annie, after Nancy Ann. I also wrote her a jingle, "Annie’s Ragtime Rugs," to celebrate her passion for weaving and her dream of a store of her own: Come on down, shop around, best damn rugs in the whole damn town.

She would reciprocate with the occasional note. One read, "Dear Tom, I love you. This is a Love that I have with You. Nothing exists Before nor After. It was in Springtime that I watched you planting your seeds, collecting your materials and accepting your life—the life—the living. You did something wonderful. You made things come to life—you gave them your Love and they gave you your Life."

At first I took my "seeds" and "materials" to mean our vegetable patch, whose cucumber vines, tomato and sweetpea plants, had been bossed into giants by the Missouri humidity, the bleating rain, and all that corn-fed folk music, cascading off the back porch. Then, re-reading, I got it metaphorically: The artist grows via his devotion to his gift. It occurs to me now that she also may have meant an artist grows relationally, that is, via his devotion to himself and to his partner.


One weekend, minus my new sweetheart who was visiting her family in St. Louis, several musician friends and I traveled to Harrisburg, near the Missouri River, for a fiddlers’ contest. Tractor drivers in overalls bowed tunes like "Marmaduke’s Hornpipe" and "Blackberry Blossom," hoping to win the $100 prize. Under the canvas tent, the fiddling was infectious, piercing the smells of cotton candy and roasted chicken. The real fun began, post-contest, in the parking lot. There banjoists, fiddlers, mandolinists, and guitarists packed a tight circle that widened as more joined to jam. The only limit was what the space would allow, stuck between roadsters and Airstreams, on grass-flattened farmland. A few pressed in to listen. But this was a democracy of players. Anyone who knew the tune or wanted to learn jumped in. Only thing was, you had to keep up.

A title called or a tune’s opening phrase was cue aplenty to go. The piece had two maybe three chords; its melody was taken first by a fiddle then handed over to a five-string banjo. The banjo pierced the group but a good player made sure he didn’t drowned out the swats of the rhythm guitar. The darkness was more than in abeyance—it was listening in, a jealous black, like the wooded night Edward Hopper rimmed his scenes with. And I: with my itchy beard and scraggly hair, a rolled cigarette dangling on my lips, my newly-bought used Gretsch guitar: I was enjoined. A current in my culture. Accepting a few tacit rules—mantel the tradition, let others teach you, respect your elders since they know more than you do, except for Vietnam, which, by now, most knew was wrong—and I belonged.

At one point, wandering the grounds, I stopped to hear a hymn, "The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago." It was one of those Protestant testaments to faith that declared, no matter what the sin, Christ had forgiven it long before your birth. Four old men in lawn chairs were harmonizing. Now the singing and the words, less the music, were steering the bus. It was late, and the tune slackened its pace. But it swayed, sleepy and elegiac, and there was solace in that. Since our sins were preset and forgiven, we rested in the tune, knowing we were saved. So said the verse. All this loosened the guitar strap that pressed against my shoulder.

I closed my eyes. This fusion of music and words poured through me in a familiar rush. I remembered a morning my family and I were four deep in a pew at the Presbyterian church. I was nine, and it was our first church service; Dad, the atheist (though he didn’t call himself one), was out buying our post-illumination donuts. My brothers and I wiggled in our seats, boredom courting ritual. We paused when the pastor came out and sat in a chair with a high embroidered back. Next, about thirty boys and girls, plus several gangly teenagers, shuffled onto risers against the back wall and beneath the heavenward, open-lipped pipes of the organ. Then the choirmaster entered. A peacocky man, he was scholarly, young, already balding. He nodded to the organist and raised his hands, thumbs up, fingers drooping. The singers stood in a uniform bustle.

The choir rolled out a stately hymn, intoning an emotion I knew. My feet moved in my shoes. The group leaned into their singing, sharply articulating the words. To a faint beat, my legs rocked beneath the pew. The choir urged its attentions on the conductor’s hands. A voice stretched inside me—was it mine? was it theirs?—until I was humming right along.

"Let me try out for the choir," I begged my parents on the drive home. "This is important. This is something I want to do." Within a month, I was on stage with the rest of them, voicing anthems to God in our sinfully purple robes.

Once seduced, always seduced. In a Missouri field, "The Old Account" pushed the present into the past: There was no escaping my trajectory from church choir to fiddle festival. Here I was in step at last with the pre-figured wonder of my life. The account was settled long ago. Preset and forgiven. A musician I’d be.


The day Annie moved in, she laid her stuff out on the kitchen table then lay down for a nap. I took inventory of her belongings as a poem, "What Annie Brought When She Came to Stay":

a dulcimer

a night dress

a book, Housekeeping in Old Virginia

a book, Surrealist Art

2 silver soup spoons from a Hilton Hotel

a black plastic comb

an embroidered top

cut-off and patched jeans

toothbrush and paste

a needlepoint

a bra

2 packs of Salems

a wooden bowl

a pen

3 white onions

2 green onions

2 cucumbers

1 zucchini

1 green pepper

my book, Wildflowers of America

The hot days were now incessant, and we made love in the pond. Beside the cattails, my feet in the muck, hers clamped around my waist, I pushed in and she pushed back, lusty cicadas coupling in the summer swoon. Looking into the gray-green water, I watched our pelvises jostle like baited catfish. We were pond mates. Dragonflies swooped in and paused. A distant tractor grrrrred in the soybean fields. We were doing the barnyard deed with animated clucking, no different than the leghorn and the rooster, which made us laugh as much as fuck.

On my bed we spread a flour-sack quilt on which we passed hours talking and sharing our pasts. I told her about growing up in a family of fatties. She already knew Steve. Most nights, he and Dad, two belly flops in the deep end, out-ate each other. In high school, Steve weighed three hundred and twenty pounds. He drank Coke by the six-pack while Dad devoured large bowls of ice milk after dinner. Father-son hated what each saw in the other. One consequence was that Dad favored me over Steve, and one night, tucking me in, told me so. When I felt under that, I found the message: if Steve foundered and I complied, I got the kudos, the baseball mitt, the new bike, the benefit of every brother-on-brother doubt.

Annie told me about her wacky relations, five brothers and sisters, two fathers, a mother who went cuckoo from electro-shock therapy in the 1950s. The oldest child, Annie took care of her mind-fried mother, driving her to psychiatric appointments after she, Annie, had made dinner and plated it in a warm oven. Her mother’s latest rebellion had taken her to Florida and a third husband. Hinged on such trusting talk and facile sex—"You’re not like the others," she said—a partnership loomed. We were co-creators, James Taylor and Carly Simon. She’d support my dream to be a musician, and I hers to be a weaver. Holding her, my arms around her stomach, brushing her hair, I felt we were already authentic—past-attuned artists in an America that was losing its authenticity.

We got busy making a home. Annie took the best pieces from her antique shop and moved them into our bedroom and living room. A towering oak hutch. A cheery-wood dresser. A ceiling-tall chifforobe. Solid oak dining table and chairs. Depression glass and stem ware, heavy plates, ceramic mugs. One day I thought I saw our old farmhouse sagging from the weight. It wasn’t long before our decor resembled my grandmother’s home in Rockford, Illinois, my mother’s childhood home, which, like a museum, never changed.

After a month of cohabiting, I brought Annie to St. Louis to meet my parents. Privately, Dad said she was a "real beauty." Mother called Annie "handsome," evoking comely grandchildren. Odd, I felt their approval for a woman with whom I could be myself. I practiced and arranged music at my desk every morning while she puttered about with knitting, weaving, cooking, gardening. She let me be. I let her be. Annie demanded little. We were together without harness or rein.


Late summer, Annie declared she wanted to open a combined weaving studio and antique shop. We began scouting the historic Missouri River town of Rocheport, a dozen miles west of Columbia. Walking its hilly streets, we saw the silent river, its massive brown churning beside a flood plain, where rows of cornstalks flagged in the heat. On a bluff we found a cement-block house, roof in tact, two rooms plus a kitchen appended perilously on the back end. The price was $1,750. My father cosigned the loan. I had enough chops from the Hallsville house to redo the plumbing; everything cooperated except the toilet. We had to get state approval to run our waste into the cistern. Until the approval came, we used a bucket. Within a year, after I’d earned money from teaching guitar and Annie from weaving rugs, the house was paid off. We adopted the feminist value: though we "lived together," men and women were accountable for their own debts. So, since her earnings beat mine, her half got paid off first. (Already I was living off her greater earning power and not realizing it. In a notebook, I wrote, "I Love You, Annie" in big letters. Then, in small letters, "P.S. Can I borrow $75 for a mandolin?")

One morning, the pipe under the sink burst. Annie shouted, "Oh, no." I laid the guitar on the bed and ran outside to turn off the main water valve. Annie handed me wrenches and goop and rags, and I kept my cussing to a minimum. When the water came on full force, she hugged me fiercely, a longing cut with helplessness and relief. Hands as artistic as practical, she seemed to say. I went back to my guitar.

By now I’d become an accomplished guitarist. I was selling transcriptions of rags, blues, and jazz standards to guitar players in Europe, Japan, and America. I also started teaching at a local music store, Crazy Music, whose owner built semi-soundproof studios in the basement. There, I plied my trade, with young and old who heard me solo at the seafood restaurant, S.O.B. "Sure, I give lessons," I answered from my corner perch on a stool. Soon wanna-be players lined up like take-offs at O’Hare. Music was suddenly a business.

In St. Louis, my father, sixty, now visibly tired, delighted in my guitar-playing. He bragged, as he once had about my baseball skills when I was a boy, that I’d been blessed and I was not about to let some office job stand between me and my dream. He should know. Before the war, he went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a semester, and loved it, or so he let on. But he quit and enrolled in Northwestern University, earning a degree in commerce, the popular post-Depression major. In time, his sales position and postwar family shut down his dream of being an artist. He was jealous, and angry, that my generation got to dally with our indecision. And yet, didn’t he want a design career for himself? Was a must-win war really the reason he forewent his calling?

My father wore his bitterness on his sleeve. He fogged most conversations with his motto: "Everything in life boils down to the Almighty Dollar." The gibe came with equal parts disgust and dogma. I hated hearing money made omnipotent. As a teenager, I felt my dad’s potential had ended once, Willy Loman-like, he signed on to sales. (It irked me to hear him blame Mother: "I can’t quit. What would she do?") And yet, I had to admit my own slide into greedy necessity. Quitting college, I bought ten kilos of marijuana in San Francisco, packed it with talcum powder, and sent it through the mail. In Missouri I sold it lid by lid for a tidy profit. Now I was selling other people’s music (paying no royalties), selling myself as a guitar teacher and performer, playing in smoky bars and noisy restaurants where I realized I, too, was on the menu. "The Entertainer."

This was the title of Scott Joplin’s piano rag, heard everywhere that year, and which I loved to play. The 1902 tune may speak to the cruel irony about money and art that visits every musician, who, it’s supposed, do it for love, not the do-re-mi. In each of the rag’s four melodic strains a kind of tentativeness gives way to a button-popping exuberance. I treasured the fourth strain, with the melody’s hip-swaying chromatic slide. Joplin’s rags, like most pop music, is highly repetitious. Such repeatability carries the audience’s interest. Its strength and its weakness. Once you write a hit, the audience wants more like it. Especially from you, oh talented one. Yes, you can be original. But only with your first hit. It’s then that the contemptuousness of the familiar takes over. If your inner flower, which has produced the hit, can’t keep up the replication, you’re lost. You try, and sometimes you repeat your success. But most commercial music is drivel, and it withers the flower. The hit-makers complain about it as much as they follow suit.

A child of the sixties, it wasn’t a surprise that I feared the tentacles of commercialism. Perhaps, on an unexpressed level, my father once feared the same in advertising.

The day I performed at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, my father and Annie were in the crowd. That July, with Nixon’s impeachment looming, Americans were disgusted with the Watergate coverup. It was the perfect moment to revive a finer time, the era of American parlor composers who wrote natty piano tunes, when our ears and our ethics had been less debased. I was the only guitarist at the festival’s big show, a concert of ragtime pianists. The headliner, the eighty-seven-year-old king of black Broadway, was Eubie Blake. Talk about dedication to one’s art! A Joplin contemporary, Blake used to play in Baltimore brothels before he went to New York and spent decades writing hit revues. His greatest tune is "I’m Just Wild About Harry."

On stage I announced that on my "six-string Steinway" I would perform James Scott’s "Ragtime Oriole." (Scott was another Joplin cohort.) Thirty seconds in, my fingers cooperated and the fright I had paced with for weeks lifted. I was well-rehearsed and rocked my way into a lilting performance. In a sea of two thousand faces, I glimpsed my intimates, whose telepathic delight inspired me to finger-sing the melody, to pulse its two-beat rhythm until like an oriole, supple and sure, the music took wing. Back stage, the willowy Eubie Blake gave me a wet kiss, my brawny father couldn’t stop smiling, and my adoring Annie tickled my ear: "Honey, that was the most soulful bit of ragtime I ever heard you play."


As a boy, singing with the Presbyterians, I learned to read music and understand its terminology. Then, at Kirkwood High School, my music education got fully grounded. I joined a capella, and every morning, first period, for three years, we sang. Our teacher was John Owen, a barrel-chested and tousled-haired cut-up, who was, by turns, clownish and serious. He led us in hymns, carols, spirituals, folk songs, show tunes, and light opera. We gave October, Christmas, and Spring concerts. We were bussed to nursing homes to perk up the bent-over. And we competed in choral contests throughout the state, winning every category we entered. We even made a record.

Owen’s passion, though, was twentieth-century music and the Robert Shaw Chorale-school of tight group harmony. He recruited me for the twelve-voice Mixed Ensemble, where we tried works by Paul Hindemith and Claude Debussy, much of it swampy and dissonant. Here I discovered that poets and musicians were artistic bunkmates. We sang a few of Hindemith’s Six Chansons on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. In particular, I liked "The Swan." With its swaying rhythm and its ascending chords, Hindemith led the swan onto water, his music stirring and supporting the bird in seamless trance. Owen would pedestal next to us, crooking an ear for the accuracy of our pitches and nodding steadily when we nailed them.

We sang choral pieces of Benjamin Britten, one of the finest modern text-setters. In 1942 Britten set W. H. Auden’s poem, "Hymn to St. Cecilia." St. Cecilia was the patron saint of music, one of the most venerated martyrs of Christian antiquity. How beautifully, in waltz tempo, did Britten paint the lines, themselves paeans to music. "In a garden shady this holy lady / With reverent cadence and subtle psalm, / Like a black swan as death came on / Poured forth her song in perfect calm." (Swans are the most musical of animals.) The singing Cecilia brings "Blonde Aphrodite" up and out of the water, where she "rose up excited, / Moved to delight by the melody," the music taking an jubilant leap on the word "melody."

In Owen’s choir, I began to notice something new—a kind of preternatural competitiveness between musician and poet. (Owen never commented on this: he always had one foot in ecstacy, receiving all that sound from one-hundred-plus voices cascading down on him.) The poet writes about music and tries to write musically, with meter and rhyme and assonance, while the musician sets those words as song. But the relationship seems one-sided: music is the secret language of poetry—but the reverse, music needing poetry, is not true. I began to wonder whether the poets (and other writers) didn’t envy the beauty, directness, and mystery of music and held a (private) grudge for the very language idiom they had to use, which always complicated the art with metaphor and myth, allusion and personification.

Why did the poets revere music so much? Was it because poetry was once merged with music—the song of Orpheus—but eventually lost its companion? Wasn’t this the meaning behind those exulting larks we’d read in college? John Dryden’s "What passion cannot music raise or quell?" Longfellow’s "Music is the universal language of mankind." Shakespeare’s "If music be the food of love, play on." And Robert Browning, "He who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once." Poets idealized music; music, if it idealized anything, idealized itself.

Musicians use "musical" poems to accentuate what the poets cannot bring out in verse. I thought it such an unbalanced relationship: music reminding poetry what it couldn’t have or be.

I wished I’d realized then how deeply this dependency had been carved into me. It would surface many times in my need to make language do musical things that language resists doing or can’t do. Language has always told me, "I’m inadequate." Music has always responded, "I’m not." I see now that I had to carry the words’ jealousy for music my whole musical career and, worst of all, never resolve it. Just have it haunt me, afflict me.


No wonder I felt so alive playing Joplin’s music. The burden of uniting music and language was gone or, at least, its meddlesome quandaries were temporarily displaced. And yet, even after the Joplin festival, I felt touched by the authentic musical culture of America, and I wanted to give back. How? The only way I knew, other than playing the music, was to write about it. I was asked to produce a radio series for the Columbia, Missouri, station, KOPN-FM, one of the first listener-supported radio stations in the country. I decided to write and broadcast a history of ragtime music, calling it "The Entertainer." Thirty hour-long programs were broadcast live, in which I told about the history, the composers, and the players of ragtime as well as played plenty of recordings. Shows on Joplin, Eubie Blake, the origins of ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, rag composers like Joseph Lamb and James Scott, rag orchestras and string-bands, the piano roll, the ragtime song, and my speciality, ragtime guitar.

Writing about ragtime was my first attempt at explaining my aural self, the musician breaking bread with the scholar. To a lay audience, I had to be careful describing music musically—song motifs, rhythm patterns, the mechanics of syncopation. Such erudition would fall flat. Instead, I examined the pieces programmatically and snuck in a few musical phrases. Scott Joplin’s "Cascades," for example, portrayed the spectacular waterfalls and fountains featured at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The piece courses like a torrent, its running sixteenth notes, its loping upward diminished seventh chord, its ending break into rainbow and sunshine, all perfectly portraying the water ballet. I learned that one way to examine music was to find the equivalents of what it suggests and emphasize those things.

Today, reading those radio scripts, I note my focus: how the musician’s life is waved over by the wand of fate. Joplin’s mother was a free woman, his father an ex-slave. Brothers and a sister, I write, "played guitar and sang and even composed. Scott, too, played guitar while very young, and a little bugle, but at seven he discovered a piano and naturally went to it. Soon he was playing the pieces of the day. He grew fast on the instrument, was composing and improvising at twelve, taking lessons, sight reading, and learning the classics. In 1882, at fourteen, he left home and traveled throughout the Midwest wherever he could find a piano: honky tonks, bordellos, saloons, churches with organs, levee camps. He played what he knew and picked up bits of folk music, Irish jigs, plantation banjo songs, even primitive guitar blues and dance pieces."

In Joplin’s life, we hear the artist-myth emerge: musical aptitude revealed early; family and community support; a devotion to practicing while others play ball; the sponge-like musical self on whom nothing is lost. It’s the biographical conceit—a musician’s life is unlike the lives of non-artists, for his core bearing is intractable. Not only is Joplin hurling toward his destiny but his story apocryphal tidbits confirms it. The tale is told that in 1899 Scott Joplin sold the "Maple Leaf Rag" to the publisher John Stark for a silver dollar. Joplin turned and gave that dollar to a young black boy, telling him that the "Maple Leaf" would make him, Joplin, the "King of the Ragtime Writers." And it did.

The artist’s chronology is unimpeachable. I identified totally with Joplin. I believed I, too, had been tapped. In writing the history of an American music, I wrote myself into its history. And so there I was in the show’s final episodes, playing ragtime guitar, inserting myself into the tradition I helped codify.


One day I heard that the music school of the University of Missouri, where I’d pursued a literature degree five years before, was soliciting guitar instructors. I arranged an audition and prepped three instrumental pieces and a song. Through the Bauhaus-like music building, I walked tiled hallways, aroused by the monasterial regimen: the smell of valve oil, the underwater sound of piano students in the practice rooms, the air-suck whap of those fist-thick doors’ shutting out the world. A professor of trombone greeted me. He wore large picture-window-size glasses. There was an itchy indoor feeling about him, pasty skin and close-cropped beard. He sat facing me like a detective. "Show me what you got," he said. I launched a song, "Lonny Donaldson’s Wife." The tune told a story, not exactly true, of how I met Annie, by "messing" with her husband, Don, and my imagining Don’s revenge. In the song, I’m Sam. The singer is a friend who hopes Sam will wise up. The chorus goes:

Goddam you Sam you gone and done it again,

All account of your sad lonesome life.

You should’ve stayed in your room by the light of the moon,

Not messed with Lonny Donaldson’s wife,

Not messed with Lonny Donaldson’s wife.

It was awkward. Was I to look at him while I sang? I couldn’t: he was expressionless. I felt like a lab mouse, scraping my little paws against the plastic cage. When I finished, he asked, "How about an instrumental?" I leapt into the "Dill Pickle Rag," a piece with a fiendishly tough part high up on the fretboard. This tune was less dervish, better practiced. Especially with my mouth shut. Clearly I knew my way around the instrument.

"OK fine," he said. "Now, would you show me how to make a B minor seventh chord?"


A B minor seventh?

You are there: Let’s see. A B minor chord. I know that. But what’s the seventh? I don’t know. I mean I know the seventh would be the seventh tone above the B and since it’s minor that would mean it’s, what, a whole step below, so it’s A. So how do I get that A in—

"Do you know how," he twitched, "to play the notes of a B minor seventh chord?"

"I do but it’ll take a moment."

"You should know it," and he swivelled to an upright piano and played it: B D F# A. "Just like that," he said. "It’s easy. And I’m a trombone player." He smiled cockily. Bits of lunch spackled his teeth. "That should be second nature to you, Mr. Larson."

Driving home to Rocheport, the audition swirled through me, a songwriter and a good guitarist, a teacher of songs and guitar finger-picking to those who sat before me and learned, pluck by pluck, what to do, me, a bit of a quack, who didn’t get the job because he didn’t know the theory behind the simplest chord, what Johann Sebastian Bach would have known at age three. Mr. Larson, do you know what a B minor seventh is? I didn’t. I should have. At age twenty-four. A musician should have known that.


A week later, Sunday morning, Annie and I were up early and hard at work. We split the indoor space of our two-room home on the bluff above the river. Her loom and spinning wheel filled most of one room, shelves of yarn crowding the walls. The other room was sectioned off for my desk, our bed, and a wall partition the other side of which was the bathroom: tub, sink, and chamber pot.

We started the morning with coffee but our separate rhythms had already kicked in. We rose in one spot, walked a few feet, and settled in another. I loved my desk and my work. Annie seemed to love hers, too. The machinery of our labor echoed in the house. From the loom I’d hear the percussive bat-bat of the beater against the breast beam; the pedal clack of the treadles; the mechanical chuff of the harness pulling up the heddles; the swish of the shuttle through the warp. Mine was the sound of the musician—a passage played very slowly, sometimes to the clicks of a metronome; notes I’d sing to get them from my head into my fingers; the scratching of my pen as I notated a score; my breathy curse when I made a copy mistake and had to apply the White Out. Ideas sprung up, and I jotted them in a notebook: "Make a chord sequence that follows a Shakespearian sonnet." A guitar tuning: E C G D A# E. Notes for the blues guitar column I wrote for a Canadian magazine. And this confession: "Increasing disinterest in things other than music: a. personal appearance, b. clothes, c. no time for reading/writing like I used to." My journal changed from reflective paragraphs to obsessive one-liners. I was running at the art, constantly out of breath.

Annie dyed the wool, spun it, rolled it into skeins, wove it into a rug, and sold the finished product. I transcribed tunes from records or a score and sold them as sheet music. Sound into sales. We were like dairy cows, milked daily. Having Annie there to hear my creations was always satisfying. I’d written a piece, "Cora’s Lullaby," for her great grandmother. Whenever I played it, she’d hum along as though it were a hit record.

I carried the chamber pot to a tiny latrine pond I’d dug at the base of the backyard, out where the woods began. We sprinkled on lime and fresh dirt. I had promised Annie that I’d hook the toilet to the cistern as soon as we got the official environmental OK. But even with the OK my weekly show on public radio had overtaken my "free" time, and now, near Christmas, the ground was frozen. By spring, I was afraid rattlesnakes were hibernating in the crawlspace under the house. Using the chamber pot wasn’t that bad.

I knew she was upset about having no toilet but she complied by not expressing that anger.

One day, Annie and I took a break for midday coffee and tea. She was telling me how she’d been in touch with an old friend from St. Louis who was traveling out West and had stumbled into a community of weavers.

"Really," I said, "where?"

"Santa Fe, New Mexico."

"Tourist town, isn’t it?" I’d seen a postcard of the place—mud houses, Indian jewelry, miles from nowhere.

Ignoring me, she continued. "Tom, I want to go check it out." Her tone was decisive.

"You do?"

"I do," she said, and waited. "On my own."

"It’s the toilet, isn’t it?"

"No," she said, "but I would like it fixed. You wouldn’t have left it undone in Hallsville. But I need," and she eyed our new home with a kind of premonitory regret, "more than this."

"What will it mean for us if you go?"

"A few weeks apart." She blinked, then sipped her tea. The soup lid clanged on the stove.

I felt right off that all the work I’d been doing had taken me away from her and from finishing the house. She was drifting away. Plus, she’d been taken away by her work. I was sorry this was happening. But I didn’t say it. I was focused on music—teach, learn, copy, create; teach, learn, copy, create. We hadn’t made love in a while and when we did she squirmed into the same old position. On her side. And I gave in, let her run it.

"We need a change," she said. "A new place, maybe. I’ve been in Missouri all my life. It doesn’t— It doesn’t mean I don’t love you."

I nodded.

"It means that— I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Tom— I’ve been helping you with your career. So— I— There’s no place here for me. There’s no way I can learn anything in this town."

I listened, touched her wrist. The second time she said, "It’s my time," her hand stroked mine. She was right. It was her time. And just then, I must have felt dethroned, I had to tell her. About my failed audition.

When I finished, she said, "Honey, I don’t think you really wanted that job."

"What do you mean? Of course I did, dammit. I need the money, for Christ’s sake."

The anger surprised me. This was the first time I’d gotten mad at her. This was too motherly of her, the honey, the judgment, the finger-pointing that I should have known what was coming. How did she know what I wanted?

My outburst hurt her, and we froze a moment. Part of me thought Annie’s biases against college was at the root of this. After one semester at University of Missouri, she quit. She hated writing papers. Having to, as she said, "express herself in their language." In the pendulum of our attraction, hadn’t I noticed this bias? I’d forgotten it. Now I remembered.

Finally, she said, "OK, if this is what you want, you’ll have to make plans."

"Annie, please understand, music is a profession, and I need to find a way to make money. Not just give guitar lessons my whole life. If I’m ever to have a career, I have to go back to school. And I don’t think either of us are ready for that."

I waited. Annie turned her tea mug this way and that—like it was interesting to revolve a mug of tea and regard its angles.

"Maybe this is a good time," she said, "for me to go to New Mexico—while you’re trying to figure it out."

It seemed like this was what she wanted all along. Reason to go—for her. She had raised the drift between us because she was unhappy with her work. Separation would solve that. But she had decided it on her own. And that ticked me off. I was discussing the possibility of my returning to college. Discussing it. My decision involved her. Hers was forced on me. Why wasn’t I invited?

Eventually, we went to bed, our arms and toes surprised by their not touching. We didn’t speak for a long time. Sighing gave way to half-hearted "Good night"s. Later I snuggled "I love you" into her hair but she was asleep.


And then, New Year’s day, the Volkswagen puttered out of the driveway, and we waved goodbye, just once. It was too cold for a walk by the river, so I headed to my desk, buried myself in my work. At night, I oscillated the lugubrious feelings: missing her attention; suspecting her of looking for another, not as studious as me; holding tight to my righteous anger, that irrational notion that by her leaving to seek her own fortune, she was stopping me from seeking mine.

A week later, I was grateful for three letters, here in successive excerpts.

It is so wide open here and the sun shines always. I wonder what Jan. is like at home. Miss you and the hills & river but this is quite a pleasant diversion. Today I went to shops downtown – lovely settings – filled with the best jewelry, pottery & rugs (you can imagine!) My rags wouldn’t hold a match to these but then again that’s Indian Art – of which I have no desire to reproduce. The people here are so fine. They are much more casual and seem to have time to talk and dream some wild ones (maybe it’s the openness here, I don’t know). P. S. I do love you, too!

I’m ready for a long hibernation period with 3 - 4 looms, a studio and a warehouse of wools!! Dreams – Dreams . . . At least I know where I wanna go – my perceptual values have really taken quite a turn. Believe I’m worth a lot more than I’ve given myself credit for in the past!!! A lot More. Oh dear, looks like I’ve really gotten off on weaving again – Sorry. Woke up with it." Also, "It’s gonna be a Western Annie coming home to you, babe. Full of Energy. I’m getting a good (though late) start in this Life. I must Respond to it All!

Babe, know this is quite a new experience for us both and don’t know what will come of it. I certainly have some newfangled ideas of where my head is going and has been. What I’m trying to do is Open myself up to Me . . . that’s a lot to swallow! Gulp!! I believe that what we are alone or together was built on a trust and honesty – therefore I feel at peace that things will evolve to the better of wherever we are guiding them."

All this softened me. I loved her enthusiasm for the West and herself in it. I realized that this was her way: guiding us apart so as to guide us back together. I marveled at the tack: perhaps I was wrong. She was putting us first by clarifying what she wanted for herself. Once she returned, we were soon as we used to be—doting, embracing, the sexual urges rushed back.

For the next five months, Annie toiled full-time at a data-entry job to save money for Santa Fe. I’d never seen her so single-minded. We agreed we’d work separately that summer and reunite in the fall, decide then what we’d do. She packed up in June and drove Interstate 40 to Albuquerque.

I joined two musician friends and we went West ourselves. We took Interstate 70 to Aspen and Steamboat Springs; Santa Cruz (where I heard a guitarist play a tune with jazz chords and asked him to show me every one he knew), San Francisco, Berkeley, and Mendocino; Ashland and Eugene, Oregon; one gig with comic-book-artist-cum-banjoist, R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders. We were the Genial Stoopid Brothers, from Dinkdale, Missouri (so read our sandwich board). Tips-earning street musicians, we showcased high-energy blues, ragtime, and hokum on steel guitar, violin, and ukulele, our specialty, double-entendre songs like Ukulele Ike’s "I’m a Bear in a Lady’s Boudoir." Crowds by the fives, tens, and twenties adored us. Our top-open guitar case caught the coins dinging in and few furtive dollar bills. Wisenheimers, we arranged the songs, perfected the licks, crafted the antics and voila, fifty minutes of ribaldry. Our long hair and beards, our sandaled or bare feet, our acoustic mania, stopped passers-by, especially when I did a lightening-fast fingerpicking version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" on the ukulele.

By September, Annie and I were together—and she couldn’t stop talking. Her sentences, echoing her letters, were laced with exclamation points. Guess what? There’s a weaver I can apprentice with for the summer! During the tourist season! Her shop, Victoria’s Dyes, Spinning and Weaving, is on Canyon Road, a street of galleries, a real art colony—a colony! Which, "Tom!" she said, "that means musicians, too!

"Oh sweetie," she effused, "you can get dozens of gigs. Nobody’s playing ragtime. Nobody!" She wanted to know, Was I really going to teach guitar in the basement of Crazy Music another year? "Santa Fe is a magical place. You can make a living. Full-time musician, performer, teacher. There’s no one like you out there." And, she continued, "I’ll be gone to my studio all day so the apartment will be yours." She’d made a decision: "You are why I came back, you know. You are!" I thought she was coming back no matter what.

Oh my, she was persuasive! Add to that my musician’s penchant for succumbing: what sounded beautiful was beautiful. But I was torn, too. Being apart for a summer had lessened my dependency on her. Playing solo or with the Stoopid Brothers took lots of time. I got used to that time, coveted it. Alone, I could hear my calling as I had in Madison. When chores or car repairs or money worries or unplanned girlfriend need took me away from my guitar, I got annoyed. I wanted to live intensely, artistically, simply. And with Annie gone, things had simplified.

But I also missed her. What intensified it was being with zany males day-in and day-out, no affection, no skin, no difference. Now, her invitation stirred my vanity. She said I was the reason, that she’d come back for me.

"If I go," I said, "it’s so that we can be together and both our careers get going." She didn’t balk. She grabbed me, with that cloven-hoofed wildness I loved. While we spent days discarding and packing our shit, it dawned on me that her need for me was stronger than her need for independence. My steadiness, my domesticity, my guitar sounding in the long winter evenings to come. For her, without someone to share Santa Fe with, Santa Fe wasn’t enough. I was that someone.


The West is terrifying and liberating the moment you realize you’ve entered it and left your grassy, watery, arboreous region behind. I’m not sure where it happens—a rise or two west of Oklahoma City, say El Reno, where the motel neon is brighter and the view of the plains is photographic. I saw, as Annie and I drove out of the heavily populated landscape of the Midwest, uninhabited distance spread to the edges. It was early November, and the wind was strong. Under a merciless sun, the wind rushed about frantically, children at recess. Imperceptibly the terrain rose. River beds were more like gashes in the land, and the barbed wire endlessly fenced in nothing. We lumbered on toward the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains, northern New Mexico, at 7,000 feet. The odd thing, the Southwest seemed barren and sunken, despite the violent uplift of mountains. But it’s a mile higher than the Midwest. I noticed, too, that it was better for us to keep our van with looms and guitar cases, a dog and two cats, going to Santa Fe than it was to stop and ask anyone in Tucumcari why they lived there. We had barely begun to ask ourselves why we had come to share what little they had. The West and its empty grandeur is an imagined place, only more so when you’re in it. To get any of us there, it seems the dream needs to surpass the reality.

When we graveled onto the driveway of our rental, an adobe casita at 550 Canyon Road that Annie had rented, the afternoon was sun-filled and cool. Stick-brown bushes circled the portal of our corner home. On the door, beside a bouquet of yellow flowers, was a note.

Tom Larson: Phone your mother immediately in St. Louis at the Chase-Park Plaza.

I called.

"He’s dead," Mother screamed. "He’s dead. Please get on a plane." She was sobbing. "You have to promise me that you’ll get on a plane and come here right now."

My father.


My mother, terrified.

Annie drove me to Albuquerque. Shocked and silent, I could only gaze at the distances of New Mexico, speckled with piñon trees and little extinct volcanic cones. Where was I?

On the plane to Missouri, I pieced together the story. The day before she called, my parents had flown from their retirement home in Sarasota, Florida, to a sales convention in St. Louis. They had been in Sarasota only six months. Leisure Town, a mile from the balmy Gulf of Mexico, low-low house payments, no kids to support, no snow to shovel. Dad began his golden years making arts and crafts—sand-dollar necklaces, shell-scoop candy trays, ship designs on wall plaques done with copper wire twisted around nail heads. Mother called to say he was quite the artist. And yet, within two months, Dad’s Social Security check wasn’t covering expenses. Besides, he was bored. How much golf can I play? he wrote on a postcard. At sixty-one, he un-retired. He went back on the road to sell school supplies as he had at a string of Midwest paper companies, rising to marketing manager at St. Louis’s Graham Paper. In Florida, he signed on as a part-timer for Sanford, makers of Sanford’s Indelible Marker. A quick study, he breezed through a training course in the company’s product line and was selling markers to schools in Tampa Bay and St. Pete. He was back in business.

At lunch in the convention ballroom (November 11th), Dad ate the chicken a la king too fast, started coughing, tried to shrug it off, excused himself, and took the elevator to their suite, where Mother was. He lay on the bed. The coughing accelerated. Harder, harder. Mother said, What’s wrong, John? Suddenly, he stopped coughing and clutched his throat. He couldn’t breathe. She grabbed the phone. His body remembered the airless clime of Colorado five years before. A heart attack, which got him to quit smoking, walk a mile a day. Now, the pain in his chest was back. He had no memory of the pain but his body knew. Dorothy, I can’t breathe. He clutched at the maple-leaf-patterned bedspread. His body flag-flapped. His face reddened. He rolled off the bed. I can’t breatheCall an ambulanceIt’s my heart.

In three quick days, Dad was eulogized and buried, and my brothers and I watched Mom go into his closet, stroke his old Navy jacket, palm his watch and fraternity pin (they’d met at Northwestern University in 1938), sit down in the kitchen and withdraw. She told us that we had lives to return to. Go on. I’ll survive.

Four days after arriving in Santa Fe I arrived again. Annie took my arm and walked us into the casita. A long hot bath, and I put on her gifts, a Pendleton robe and down booties. We sat Indian-style before a piñon-wood fire, padded by quilts and a sleeping bag. We faced each other, with fire-warmed hands. I felt droopy and old, ready to give her what I’d been carrying.

"Do you want to tell me about it?" she asked.

I watched the jigging flames until the words rose in my throat. "Neither of my brothers cried," I said, "when they saw his body. I did. I couldn’t stop. I just wept. He looked so worn out. All sealed up. As if the mortician had glued his eyes shut, his mouth. His hands were folded, the little black hairs on his knuckles. The skin puffed up around his wedding band. He must have gained weight again. Oh, Annie," and I whimpered while she thumb-stroked the palms of my hands, "it wasn’t time for him to die. He didn’t just die. Something killed him. Something I can’t know."

I wanted to shake the unfathomable part loose, what I’d brooded on these past days: why didn’t he follow his calling to be a draftsman? He was so talented. Maybe, I told Annie, that I had it wrong. Perhaps he grew to despise his job because that was his destiny. To be bound, not to be free. Maybe he knew this but he couldn’t tell me, let alone himself.

"Take it slow, honey," Annie said.

"I know. I just don’t want to forget him. I feel there’s so much of him in me."

"Why? You don’t have to be like him, do what he did. Look where we are!"

"I know that. It’s just—I remember how much he liked me. I was his favorite, you know. He was in the audience when I played the Joplin festival. He was so proud of me. Now he won’t get to hear me play again. He’ll never hear what I write." I was crying.

"Honey," Annie said, her face reflecting the fire’s orange glow.

"I didn’t know he was broke. They must have saved nothing. You know, he gave up three years to the Navy, and then quit his dream of being an artist to support his family."

"I know."

"You have to promise me that if we have children, we won’t give up our dreams for them."

"I promise," she said, pulling me to her through the crackle-glare of the fire. "And we will have children."

My face next to hers, her hair on my mouth, I whispered, "Annie, being with you is—"

"I’m here. I’m what you want." Her fingers splayed and furrowed on the back of my head.

"What would I do by myself?"

"You’d be looking for me," she laughed, pushing back to regard me.

"I would, wouldn’t I?" I was still snuffling.

"I want this to be our home, Tom." She turned to look at our Pooh-Bear den, the white plaster walls holding, museum-like, a leather quiver and arrows, a Navajo blanket. As if to say having this place would also take care of us.


Settled in Santa Fe, my repertoire had bloomed to 163 tunes, categorized in spiral-bound notebooks: folk ragtime (23); piano rags (13); jazz guitar instrumentals (18); ragtime songs (22); blues guitar and vocals (24); folk songs (6); original songs (7); mandolin tunes (16); fiddle tunes on guitar (13); lounge boogie (6); ukulele favorites (7); and classical numbers (15). The total was important. The history of finger-style acoustic guitar was running through me. I was one of its repositories. Carrying it on, I was, in my small way, part of the collectivizing element of my culture.

A half-block up on Canyon Road was the Haven restaurant, my first Santa Fe gig. There, I played for dinner patrons. I also serenaded their chewing at the Forge restaurant, a block off the Plaza. That winter I was reviewed in the Santa Fe Reporter: "Larsen [sic] plays and sings gently. There is no other way to describe his style. In the din of the Forge, he was all but lost. But in the quieter surroundings of The Haven, he was ideal. Never obtrusive, always carefully controlled, Larsen provided a perfect accompaniment to a long and leisurely meal."

(If you have a musical imagination, you might hear me shaping, finger-style, the melodic lilt and bass-note accompaniment to Fats Waller’s "Ain’t Misbehavin’." Sing along with the chorus: it’s syncopated, so observe a slight pause— —before beginning: Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m saving my love for you. Listen, above the restaurant din of forks on plates, and you’ll hear me.)

I began recording my guitar pieces when, serendipity, I got a postcard from Kicking Mule records, a guitar players’ label in Berkeley: "Hi, Jan Roberts says that Rick Barlow says that you play the guitar very well. Do you have any pieces that you would like us to hear? Ed Denson." The following spring, with a TEAC recorder, I taped half my repertoire. Instrumentals and songs. Blues and ballads. Annie and I sang my arrangement of Eubie Blake’s saucy, "As Long As You Live (You’re Gonna Be My Baby)."

I felt I had finally achieved some artistry on the guitar, sent the tapes in, and Kicking Mule responded. "The playing sounds great – the singing sounds like most guitarist’s singing." And, the label said, they’d already signed a drove of other guitarists, a shot I took to mean they were as good as I was—and could sing. I tried not to view the slight as an omen sent to deny me a record deal. I tried not to think about the recording world, even the non-commercial sliver, whose power I was conflicted about, wanting and not wanting to give myself to, "fear of success" went the euphemism in those days. And yet—

With a few other rejections of my tape and my view of the music biz started to rot. Musicians, especially those of us who revive older music, are many. Not few. Thus, we’re dispensable. In part, because popular music is ubiquitous. Think of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, Chopin’s "Minute Waltz," Irving Berlin’s "Easter Parade"—each has plied the hands and voices of millions. In the nineteenth century and before, music was played by people at home; in our time, it’s played by artists on recordings, in concerts, on TV, in restaurants. The rapture of music is commonplace. Its over-exposure denatures its sacredness. Would-be players become listeners. Would-be listeners, who’ve heard it all, become ignorers. Since we’ve heard it before, we’re less likely to listen.

Being the companionable "Entertainer," who, as my reviewer wrote, oversees with careful control a long and leisurely meal had little to do with my musical evolution. Worse, having the (unheralded) gig and making the (piddly) wage felt like I was being used. I knew this, and yet I didn’t know this. I knew it when the yammering eaters made a ritual out of ignoring me. I didn’t know it was getting to me musically until a friend, who refused to play in restaurants, said that all such gigging does is reinforce one’s mistakes. If, while playing the Villa Lobos Prelude No. 3 in a minor (one of the saddest guitar pieces ever written), I blew the twelfth-fret E or those bell-like repetitions of the same note, before the long emphatic descent of notes, and I blew it every night, chances were I’d blow that passage the next night. Even Segovia warned that a musician’s technique never stands still: it either progresses or regresses.

The irony was not that I’d been steered unwittingly toward this opposition within music as commodity and art. The irony was, I had carried the enigma in my veins all along.

Four years earlier, I lied to the woman on the pier in Madison that my song, "Back Bayou," the one I’d sung to her, had been recorded by Johnny Cash. I thought that what I’d written would have appealed to Cash. I wasn’t deluding her; I was deluding myself. But the whole notion of misrepresenting myself as a way of being myself was lost on me in the moment. I knew I was fibbing. But I didn’t know my lie was in character. That’s the rub. I don’t think the woman knew, either. When she handed me the "artist"s plaque, she was just initiating me into the shared world of self-delusion where the artist, to keep himself going, will convince himself that his art is vital to the world while the world, in most instances, could care less.

This was my view of people: either you were an artist or you weren’t. The artist who quit, as my father did—early, too—suffered none of the ping-ponging between loneliness and acceptance. Next to supporting his family, Dad worked at a job—whether he liked it or not was immaterial—so that he wouldn’t have to endure, for him, the shadow of fine art.

Here is how I understand the musician’s shadow, which, at the time, was starting to congeal. The shadow is a place the musician wants not to dwell. It’s the cave of inadequacies he inhabits during practicing, of self-consciousness he limps in an error-ridden performance, of disregard he endures when no one is listening and because no one listening he can’t communicate his emotion or the music’s sensibility so why the fuck even try. The foggiest part of the shadow, though, is music’s sublimity. The true shadow of music is its enthrallment, which music maintains better than all the arts. So if I don’t want to dwell in music’s shadow, I find a happier clime where I shut out the inadequacies, the judgments, the self-loathing, where I convince myself that I sound beautiful, that my compositions work, that my playing is always progressing.

Now you understand that the greatest problem with music’s shadow is this: to be so enthralled by music that you lose consciousness of what’s enthralling you. This was Orpheus, his blessing and curse. One that belongs to every musician. Perhaps it should have occurred to me that not only did music have its own shadow but that all the inadequacies and doubts I chose to keep out started working their way into my feelings about Annie. When the artist cannot dump his projections on his art, he dumps them on his companion. Not knowing what he’s doing until someone (the writer thirty years hence) points it out to him.


Most mornings, Annie walked the third-of-a-mile up Canyon Road to Victoria’s weaving shop where she rented a studio. (Next door was Glory Hole Glassworks, where a crowd stood in awe while Peter VanderLaan blew melting glass into lustrous vessels, long-stem glasses, and scalloped platters. I remember her talking about Peter a lot when she came back to Missouri. I’d often see her chatting with him, no, being coy and girlish with him. Which clearly he liked.) On her way, she dawdled with gallery owners or tired, convivial women, pushing strollers. At the shop, Annie made and sold handwoven shawls and rugs, jackets and hats, scarfs and ruanas. The rare mistake hung on the wall, a price tag affixed. To those tourists not too beat from walking Canyon Road and stopping at any of the tasty galleries she demonstrated a loom’s industriousness or else chattered delightedly as they tried on her wearable art.

Most mornings, I pulled my guitar out from under the bed and opened the blue-plush-lined case. My old Gretsch acoustic. Its varnish below the sound hole worn to bare wood from so much playing. I would sit in an armless straight-back chair, cradling my guitar on top of my right leg, crossed over my left, practicing and playing and scoring arrangements for hours.

My first summer in Santa Fe, the PBS affiliate broadcast The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein. I was enchanted by Bernstein, who un-self-consciously read from a Teleprompter and elucidated our common musical heritage. On our black-and-white Philco, he explained music’s structure with a cross-discipline approach: Chomskyian linguistics and harmonic analysis. First, he described music as a syntactical and representational language. Using this analysis, he illumined the crisis composers faced in the twentieth century. Why had music, in our time, lost its tonal harmony? Where were modern composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and John Cage taking it? Bernstein’s metier, classical and contemporary music, was not the music I’d been playing. No crisis inhabited Joplin’s music. It was all tonal and pleasing and functional.

In the fifth lecture, Bernstein announced he would present The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, the piece for which titled the series. By now, I was engrossed by Bernstein’s smoke-caressed Boston brogue, his ideas ringing with literary allusions. He led the fifth lecture off with a rousing "Feria" from Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole; this, he said, was for him a farewell to tonality. Next he brooded over the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg. In 1908, Schoenberg wrote his Second String Quartet. "In the last movement of this quartet," Bernstein noted, the Viennese composer "sings Stefan George’s prophetic words: ‘Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten’—‘I feel air from another planet.’" At the piano, Bernstein played an excerpt. Very creepy, very atonal.

He asked, "Can you feel the air?"

Onto Ives. The Unanswered Question, he said, is a mystically existential, programmatic piece for strings, winds, and trumpet. Ives wrote it in 1906, later revised the score between 1930 and 1935. The name Ives rang a bell. I recalled hearing "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven," after Vachel Lindsay’s poem, a carnivalesque mock-drama, beat to life by Ives’s defiant melodic-percussive chords. Ives, Bernstein continued, was "an unheard, unhonored and unsung Sunday composer." And yet this New Englander, who lived from 1874 to 1954, made "the most trenchant description of the tonal crisis" facing Western composers, far from the musical centers of Europe—"in Connecticut of all places"—all on his own.

Bernstein said Ives wrote a "marvelous little piece" that "says it all, and better than a thousand words . . . an almost graphic representation of the conflict" between tonal and atonal music. This six-minute work is a declamatory piece, which, paradoxically, uses music to explore the nature of music. Bernstein quoted Ives’s one-paragraph foreword to the work:

The strings play pianissimo throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent "The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See and Hear Nothing." The trumpet intones "The Perennial Question of Existence," and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for "The Invisible Answer" undertaken by the flutes and other human beings becomes gradually more active, faster and louder . . . The "Fighting Answerers," as the time goes on . . . seem to realize a futility and begin to mock "The Question"—the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, "The Question" is asked for the last time, and the "Silences" are heard beyond in "Undisturbed Solitude."

As the piece unfolds, Bernstein comments. The Druids or strings play "pure tonal triads" (his emphasis). The trumpet intones "a vague, nontonal phrase." The winds respond in an "equally vague, amorphous way." The winds’ ensuing answers "grow more ambiguous and more hectic, until the final answer emerges as utter gibberish." The strings throughout, however, maintain "their diatonic serenity, imperturbable." After the final trumpet call, there is no response from the winds, "except for those strings, quietly prolonging their pure G-major triad into eternity."


In the moment those strings prolong G-major "into eternity," or as Ives wrote, in "Undisturbed Solitude," I was dumbstruck. What is this composition that both describes an idea in music and, if that’s not enough, attaches a foreword to explain the idea in words? The trumpet’s question sounded portentous: B-flat, C-sharp, E, E-flat, B-flat, no tonal center, just notes. A falling minor seventh, a rising minor third, a rising major seventh, a falling fourth. How did these intervals—falling, rising, rising, falling—say portentous? Was it the tones saying those things? Was it my saying/thinking those things on the tones’ behalf?

Stranger still was an unstable melody moving against the tonal placidity of the strings. It was unnatural, an Irish green golf course in the Arizona desert. Add in the winds growing antagonistic, and the piece is as uncomfortable as it is peaceful, though at the end it returns to pasture, serene and restful, if only for an instant. In the long moment I first heard The Unanswered Question, I sensed the piece was telling me: pay attention to its companioning music and words.

Then another grenade exploded. I wondered whether I had a connection, as Ives did, to the music I played. A deep psychic and emotional link. Why did I play guitar rags and instrumentals, songs by Bob Dylan, rags by Scott Joplin, ballads by Duke Ellington? Because they felt good? Because people liked how I played them? Could it be that this American folk and jazz guitar I loved playing I had outgrown? I recalled learning "The Transcendental Waterfall," a monumental guitar solo by John Fahey. The piece featured his peculiar meditative drag, the self-conscious, arid, almost soulless sound of steel strings across a tune mournful and flat. I worked hard to learn his version because I thought it important to learn as part of the history of American finger-picking I had championed and played well. Fahey had written the piece for himself. "I don’t want to play like the old guys," he said in an interview. "I’m from the suburbs. I’m different. I play what I want."

It hit me that I wouldn’t be like Fahey by playing Fahey’s music. I had to come up with my own style. When I asked myself, sitting there before the blank TV, what it was I wanted to play, I had no answer. All I could think was, I’m a guitarist who doesn’t know what he wants. It was all too much, what Bernstein and Ives had thrown at me, so I grabbed my hat and headed out the door.

Walking up Canyon Road, dotted by fields of Chamisa in bloom, art galleries, and bronze sculptures, plus the great self-satisfied Santa Fe mountain in the distance, and nearby Atalaya Hill, a mount of climbable and ascetic portent above St. John’s College, this mix of sky-earth and soul-draw, settled by legions of artists who’d arrived before us and seeded hope, Annie and me dreaming our lives as we live them—all that place and history and opportunity, which had been buoyant and beautiful for nearly a year, suddenly was a burden. I felt the tunes I played were merely commanding me to play them, like sirens calling, We are beautiful sounds because we are beautiful.

In all the music I knew, smatterings of Bach and Beethoven, loads of Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake, virtually no one wrote about their compositions in words. In Columbia, when I did my ragtime show, I consulted books and articles about folk, blues, ragtime, and jazz. Yet these tracts were sociology—the players, their biographies, their styles. Rarely do authors analyze music’s meaning or purpose. None writes a philosophical enquiry. None an aesthetic argument. The idea of thinking about music—or thinking about music in music as Ives had—seemed, at first blush, like a copout. The man who explains music’s meaning must not understand music. The meaning’s in the music, isn’t it? Still, hadn’t I tried to explain ragtime’s meaning? Hadn’t Bernstein? A musician of superb talent and cross-genre hits, he sounded in the Harvard talks so puzzled by music’s linguistic potential that he had to solve it. Having to account for my rapture with music fascinated and disturbed me. Maybe there were things that required music and words to unlock what was in my heart. Making a division might be the only way of making a union.

Farther up the street’s gentle incline, the sun was scorching. Every gallery I passed, its purple or magenta sign with gold lettering—an artist’s or the gallery owner’s name—said, No matter how far you’ve come, no matter how lost you are, you still need a front in the world through which others might find you, those who know what you’re going through because they, too, have been tormented by these questions. The world needs the artist. That’s why their names light the marquees, why their melodies and lyrics become our songs.

In the evening Annie arrived. After a day spent lost in myself, I loved seeing her flush toward me—raven dark curly hair, small waist cinched by a silver-buckled belt, great mahogany-brown lustrous eyes. She was head-turning pretty (I’d known hungry-eyed men to approach her in bars or at picnics, even when she was with me).

We ate dinner, rice, beans, and green chile; we talked quite a while: she asked about my day, and I said it was the usual—practice, practice; she said a Texas woman, an oilman’s wife, spent $1,000 on shawls for her and her sisters. I suggested we cash the check, get $20 bills, and roll all over them on the bed.

I made light because I couldn’t say what I was feeling. It was too chaotic. I wanted my turning to Ives in this widening gyre to stay mine for a while.

Dishes done, I guided her over and pulled back the quilt. Naked, under the sheets, I kissed her. I asked about the IUD, and she assented. I was on my back and she lay half facing me, her left leg over mine. Her bush inched close but didn’t thrust. Once I got hard, I started thigh-pulling her to me, get on top. I was strong. She was cautious, not averse. Each time we made love, I insisted she get on top. A sedentary, I’d gained weight; I was embarrassed by my pillowing stomach, fleshy breasts. I bounced her a long time, watched her bang-bang-buckaroo, until she wore a look of girlfriend duty, which I thought went with the territory, but which, in the corner of my eye, was also her other self, calculating, declaring, Putting me on top doesn’t do much. What is it inside me you’re trying so hard to get at?


During my Canyon Road walks, I’d go by Ernesto Mayans’s gallery, then Eli Levin’s. I’d often pass Tommy Macaione, Santa Fe’s most famous Plein Air artist. There he’d be, attacking a canvas on his easel and muttering to himself. In every season he wrestled what he stood before into painted form. He used a palette knife to slab on the heavy impasto colors of his landscapes or flower gardens, portraits of effusive hollyhocks and tangled lilacs. In his sixties, his hair and beard had grown to hermit-like lengths. He smelled so bad that—well, it was another reason not to stop and engage him. He kept cats, a clutter of fifty, in his house. It was a feces sty, a health hazard so bad the city evicted him and euthanized the animals. He went crazy over that, crying, screaming, threatening to kill everyone. (Some thought Macaione should have been put down, too.) He identified with his cats—clawing at anyone who argued with him or did not buy his paintings. He was the epitome of the crazy artist, incorrigible and utterly selfish.

Far more visual artists than musicians lived/worked in Santa Fe. The painters (not to mention jewelers and potters and sculptors) arrived in migratory waves. One artist I knew and admired was Brad Smith, a bronze sculptor and an installation artist. He had two performance pieces—a new art, based on the sixties’ Happening—which he and a helper dressed up in: Rubber Lady and Rubber Man. They stood eerily resolute, black vinyl mimes, at gallery openings, new music concerts, the flea market next to Jackalope pottery.

One day, soon after Ives arrived, I was building shelves for Annie in her studio. She now had more skeins of dyed wool for sale than she could display. Mid-afternoon we took a break. Smoking a Salem, she stared at the cloudless sky, calling it a cobalt blue and one she might create as a dye. Soon she was reminiscing about her one semester at the University of Missouri, two years before I had gone. She dropped out because she despised writing papers and felt intimidated by the lectures. But she remembered her painting teacher, a conversationalist, who was talked of the natural world, its colors and shapes, then ran off to his studio to paint them. He and his wife lived half the year in Ibiza, an island in the Mediterranean. They liked Annie. She was a primitive, they said—a girl, raised in the projects, who was untouched by instruction. They told her not to fret about leaving. Van Gogh never went to college. Besides, the big state schools were staffed not by artists, but teachers who had no talent and got light-filled studios and campus galleries in which to show. Wouldn’t she join them one summer in a cow barn on Ibiza as an apprentice?

Annie didn’t go. Too big a leap for an eighteen-year-old.

"How about now, I said, "would you go now?"

She shook her head no.

She had always wanted to paint. But before it could happen—I’d heard this story a dozen times—she had to earn her freedom, make enough money to feel secure, then begin. There was no money in painting, she said. It was true: the crafts, not the fine arts, sold on Canyon Road. It was the opposite of Tommy Macaione, who smelled but was free, who painted first and later dealt with where he’d find dinner.

"So why did we come?"

"So I could learn to weave."

"And not for the money."

"Yes, not for the money. I’ll paint when I’m ready."

I didn’t believe her. And I told her so. It was the artist’s deeper urge that made her artistic, the urge as much as the execution. It bothered me that she used her unstable past as an excuse: the poverty, the neglect, the shuttling to and fro after the divorce. She was, she said, a child of poverty. Of crazy parents. What else did I expect from a girl whose father took his be-curled little Nancy (named after Frank Sinatra’s daughter) to his favorite tavern, sat her on the silver cigarette machine where some woozy lout slurred, "Whose little girl are you?" Or else her mother, who had shown up unannounced in our lives several times. Once, after plying the Weegee Board, she quit her job, bought a car, and drove to Santa Fe, incessantly, headlight-blinded like Janet Leigh in Psycho. A thousand miles later, she knocked sheepishly on our door, saying, "Hi, are you busy? I have some things I really need to talk to you about." A week later, after she and Annie ran through several cartons of Tareytons, she was gone.

"I’d like to see you survive my mother," she said.

Recently we’d seen the exhibit of the Polish weaver, Janusz Kozikowski. He wove images that resembled abstract paintings, what looked like fabric, the folds and flutes of a garment. I recalled to Annie how she had stood in front of his weaving, savoring some un-voyaged sense of herself.

"Why," I persisted, "are you so adamant about postponing painting? Why not carve out a couple hours, first thing every day, and paint? What’s the big deal?"

"I’d rather wait," she said.

"For what?"

"For when I have a studio. When I’m set up with my materials. I have plenty of time."

"Then why should we have a child?" I said, out of the blue. "Won’t that just postpone your doing what you want?"

"First of all, you don’t know what I want. And second don’t bring children into this."

I think the word child popped out because it was too-long unspoken between us, the thing we were postponing. A child I often felt, when I heard her remark on the cuteness of some baby swaddled in a mother’s arms, was her true desire or, I should say, a desire truer for her than me. All awake babies looked to me like trouble, duty, havoc.

Suddenly I saw Annie’s eyes had turned a moody green, and she was sinking into regret. What I thought of as her sadness about not painting was for her disgust at me for bringing it up, for comparing her "progress" to mine. I was the one barely getting paid, and I was the one persevering. Why couldn’t she?

"If you must know," she said, "the child—our little girl—comes first."

So child birthed our little girl, gender-ready, pre-screened. The real thing keeping Annie back from the future was me, and my sperm supply. Man or father? flitted through my head. This wasn’t about our careers. This was about the rattle of female fertility. What happened to we become artists first and discuss children second, the grandest of all assumptions, was that it was never the plan, despite my thinking it was. This was no different from, I will play guitar and the music will lead me to myself. Stop assuming. But then a night practicing guitar brought back the shade.


In bed that night—with the cold, she donned a woolen nightgown—I wondered whether every childless couple had to conceive their bundle of joy mentally before its spark and residency in the ovum. Probably not. Most kids were accidents, not choices. On some level, we must have known that a child’s coming into our lives asked us to look at ourselves and our progress as a couple. How strong were we? How committed? What I pondered, though, while the frosty air tailed down the chimney, whisper-nagged along the window sills, crackled from the heat-stingy wall heater, was that my waiting until I was artistically secure before a child was really no different from her waiting until she was financially secure before painting. Did every couple’s life have these polar outlines or was this the way I thought about everything, in balancing movements, allegro, adagio, allegro?

Such was the dynamic set for me by my family. My brother’s and my father’s need for calm, for me to oblige them. The fatter Steve got the more compliant I became. Where he was stubborn, I was cooperative. Where he was gluttonous, I was reserved. Where he sat in a folding chair devouring a pack of Little Debbie Snack Cakes, I excelled in sports. I got used to being triangulated with Steve and Dad. There it was: and now it was. Dumped, as we are, from the urn of the past. My good-boy was no different from her poor-girl.

I felt my compliance kicking in. Maybe what we needed was a child—our little girl—who would keep our quasi-marriage in balance.

Next morning, while we were swinging and smoking by the woodpile, I said to Annie, "I don’t know, Annie. Maybe I can try and envision a little girl." I found myself giving in to her side where, if I were open, reason lay. I could write her tunes, sing and play to her. She couldn’t cost that much.

"Just think," she said, "what growing up in Santa Fe will do for her."

"We can’t know the future," I said. "What if we have a boy." A boy with a boy’s trouble, a boy and his dad, a boy who gets dirty and plays baseball, who’s a sassy, unruly little monster, who hates it that his dad sits and composes music all day.

"Then we have a boy."

Come evening I built a fire, she went to her stitchery and I to playing tunes. Tunes I knew by heart. Annie knitted, swayed to "Cora’s Lullaby." The past my present.

I knew nothing about children. Whether I liked them. Whether I’d like my own. A little girl would mean our family was two-thirds female with me, at times, pinned between them. Girls coo a lot, don’t they? She’ll coo to her fiercely indulgent mother. To her reluctantly benevolent father.

When, within a few days, I said OK, Annie clapped her hands. "Oh, goody," she said and kissed me, the sower. Later, we held hands and walked to The Pink Adobe, where we celebrated with chicken enchiladas. Back home, we plied her preferred position: me on top—her legs spread—up high—in a victory V—on an animal skin rug—before a roaring piñon fire—in our childless casita.

The seed of love and regret flew in and, a moment later, I felt neither. Only fear. I wasn’t ready. I would never be ready. Ready wasn’t in my genes. I was giving my life to someone else, and I resented it that "our little girl" wanted her life at my expense. While I knew I could be a good father, I wanted far more to be a good composer.


As Annie slowly bulked, Ives suffused my musical and intellectual being. I read everything I could about his life, a biography radically different from Scott Joplin’s: weird musical father; Yale education; selling life-insurance in New York City for twenty years and making millions—so that he might, at night and on the weekends, compose his beguiling, often unplayable music.

Ives was my guru of text and sound. The Unanswered Question is one of many gems in Ives’s crown. The list is large, the quality uneven, the great recordings rare. Four symphonies; a number of orchestral pieces and tone poems; four sonatas for violin and piano; two string quartets and a string trio; "Variations on ‘America,’" for organ; two large piano sonatas; anthems and psalms for choir; ragtime dances; and more than one-hundred-fifty songs, one-hundred-fourteen of which Ives had privately printed in 1920. His orchestral works sport demonstrable subtitles. For example, Holidays Symphony is in four parts: George Washington’s birthday, Decoration Day (Memorial Day), the Fourth of July, Forefathers’ Day (Thanksgiving).

Most of Ives’s compositions knit a remembered music into a remembering context, a soundscape into which his musical past intrudes. That past is composed of the marches and folk songs, fiddle tunes and hymns he knew as a boy. He reposits fragments of these pieces into his work, creating musical and emotional dramas layered with tonal and atonal sounds.

One example is the second of his Three Places in New England. It’s called "Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut," and the movement evokes General Israel Putnam’s bivouac during the hard winter of 1778-9. Ghost soldiers of the Revolutionary war come parading by during a child’s revery. One band then another get mixed up in his ears. Suddenly, it’s a polymetric, polytonal log-jam. At one point, two marching bands, playing different tunes, pass by one another, each holding to its own tune. Ives said he’d always hoped to replay this sonic combat, challenging the musicians to stick to their own part. "Putnam’s Camp" is a pastiche, a counterpoint of hymns, Civil War songs, folk tunes, marches, dance-hall ditties: one hears "Yankee Doodle," "The British Grenadiers," Sousa’s "Semper Fidelis," simultaneously. Such frolic, pleasing in its absurdity and innocence, has an uncanny gait—bumbling, caterwauling, rushing-forward-all-at-once, the dizzying joy (some think cacophony) of kids rolling down a hill. At a climactic moment when the tunes merge and lose their individual identity, the fracas ends.

Another work. "The Revival" from Ives’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano. Its tentative start, phrases stated and extended; its uneven pulse, unsure of itself; its declamatory fragments that merge into the hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," which is soon transfigured by a devilish turn in the tune that Ives picks up and runs with: its sudden escapade, a fiddle-mad swoon like a canoe on a wild river; and its unresolved ending, one that halts cold, as though the preacher whose gaze had been trained on heaven had caught Ives playing mumblety-peg. All in four minutes.

Ives’s compositions were utterly original, his writing about music a way of verbalizing the difficulty such originality occasioned for a listener. He seemed to be using the friction between music and language, as Bernstein did, to transcend music. I started wondering whether I might compose something transcendent by thinking and writing about a piece before I wrote it. The idea, before our little girl was born, was also a bundled infant Ives had lain at my feet.


On days I abstracted less about music and language, a New-Me plan took root. I started with Paul Hindemith’s, The Craft of Musical Composition. The composer, whose strict German education I suddenly envied, insisted on a disciplined musicianship. Against a clapping rhythm, one had to sing a counterpointed melody. The library had an album of Glenn Gould playing Hindemith’s three piano sonatas. Its harmonic language, part tonal, part atonal, mesmerized me, especially in the first sonata. I realized that if I were to know atonality (of Ives and others), I would have to learn the elements of traditional tonality as I went. I bought Walter Piston’s classic text, Harmony, and, over the next year, worked my nightly way through it, doing every exercise.

Hindemith’s exercises let my composer’s imagination loose. I wrote impressionistic preludes and finished a batch, titled Six Short Pieces. Short Piece #6 emphasizes the minor ninth and the major seventh intervals. A few tri-tones grind away, and unrelated chords clash or else are stacked bi-tonally. The piece ends with an unexpected dissonant jab. I was trying to write/play as unlike what I had written/played the last five years, untie the apron strings of sanctified American musical form.

Which of the dark sounds did I prefer? How would I structure their uneasy and unresolving relationships? It was hard, inner work, and I was thankful when evening came: guitar lessons. One student was Tom Adler. An avid patron of my playing at the Haven, he was a talented musician who, in his second year with me, learned by osmosis: I showed, he copied. Tom was twenty and had grown up in Santa Fe. From his head sprouted an Afro hair bob a good six inches, high and wide. He was already a whiz on clawhammer banjo. Sometimes I brought my mandolin and joined him and others at local bars, a big group whoop playing Irish jigs and reels. None of us was a real Okie; we were educated folk musicians. I was a drop-out from University of Missouri English. Henry, a fiddler, went to Rhode Island School of Design before quitting to build violins. His wife Libby, a guitarist, had a degree in marine biology. And another Tom was a fiddler from Los Angeles, who, like many Santa Fe recruits, arrived in a sputtering VW bus after abandoning a journalism career. He lived on next to nothing, him and his "old lady." A furious bower, he’d been reborn to his beloved fiddle.

One night I showed Tom an old guitar rag, "Smoketown Strut," bar by bar. He might have learned it from the tablature I’d written, but he preferred the show and mime.

"You’re getting it," I said, listening for that syncopated lilt such tunes had to have. I liked teaching. I especially liked analyzing the intricacies of a tune, which some students do, too.

"There’s too much space between your chord shifts," I said.

"How so?"

I exaggerated the riff with more space—x x x—and with less—xxx. "You’ve got to move your left hand really fast from position to position. I know it’s hard. What you’re playing has its own tempo, which might be slower or faster. But look, the hand has to move fast no matter the speed of the music."

There: the idea of music explained in words, recourse to language, essential.

At another lesson, Tom showed me a blister and a cut from his job, landscaping. But he assured me it was more inconvenience than pain; he’d keep practicing. As always the job intruded on the art. The pressure to make a living was winning, no question. We couldn’t just jam on the weekends, study and transcribe, teach and gig. There wasn’t any money, there would never be any money. Painters don’t make money. Nor do musicians. I was finally getting it.

Tom and I stretched our hands with a galloping rendition of Joplin’s "Maple Leaf Rag" Then I said, "Tell me what you think of this." I played my Short Piece #6. Its eerie gloss made his eyes widen.

"What was that?" He was still, reverently so.

"I’m not sure. A new direction I hope." Suddenly, there was a gap between us—the new piece, which purposely fit none of the standard idioms I was known to play, sounded incongruent, disruptive. Much more mine than the tradition’s. Its weird intervals—like Ivesian dissonance—went nowhere; they slouched, self-conscious, a stray-dog unwelcome to which our emotions cannot, without familiarity, relate. It was a new road but I wanted to embark. Perhaps Tom sensed my leaving the safe harbor of the music we knew so well, yet his interest was just as keen.

He was good at filling a silence. "When’s the baby due?"

"End of September."

We paused, rested our hands on our shovels. Then I launched "Memphis Blues," one of the first tunes I’d taught Tom. He played along, note for note. Our feet started tapping, and we were pulsing together. How good it felt to be in the saddle again.

When Tom was gone and the guitar was cased and under the bed, I felt the satisfaction of a full day. This is what I had been doing all my life: working in my room, educating myself, a soloist at my desk. Maybe my meandering life was more benign than I knew. It felt good to be alive in our Canyon Road casita, its floor the bruised purple-red of ox blood, its stuccoed walls like elephant hide, its benches and doorways in hand-shaped curves, its kiva fireplace, its ceiling vigas and latillas, my warren where I watched Bernstein effuse, where I kept my lists and effused myself, where I kept stowing myself away, a cloister which, so far, no squawking toddler had invaded.

Indicative of my new secrecy was a growing stash of Charles Ives’s LPs. I’d listen in the late afternoon, my face fronted to the speakers of my Pioneer component system, following the score if I had one. Around five, before balloon-belly Annie arrived, I’d lift the needle. I wanted Ives’s intimacy for my ears only. Besides, his symphonic density, his rasp and bite, would strike her as lunacy. She’d companion his strangeness to me, then laugh it off. I’d quick-slide the records in their plastic sleeves, file them behind other records on my shelf. We were both breathing the air of another planet. I, Ives’s dissonance and my subterfuge, Annie, the baby’s.


Ives’s masterpiece, and most famous piece, is the Second Pianoforte Sonata: "Concord, Mass., 1840–1860." The Concord Sonata, as it’s called, is also Ives’s most musical/literary piece. It’s really two works: a four-movement, fifty-minute piano sonata, over which he toiled for years and a set of essays, Essays Before a Sonata.

The Concord’s musical movements are thematically and emotionally unique. Each describes a New England literary force: "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts," "Thoreau." Ives composes musical equivalents to the writer’s ideas. For example, the quixotic and rambling nature of Emerson’s essays is suggested by a quixotic and rambling music, seventeen minutes’ worth with virtually no repetition.

As for the Essays, Ives wrote them after he finished the music but then pretended they had led to the sonata. Clearly something happened to him after the composition was finished: it didn’t say everything he wanted to say. So, he wrote the essays like extended program notes, really treatises on the music. He came to believe that the Concord Sonata was a whole consisting of the music and the essays—something virtually no other composer had ever done, though Berlioz and Wagner had inclinations in that direction. In 1920, Ives paid to have the essay and score printed together, the writing coming first. His plan, however, proved impractical. The quantity of words overwhelmed the musical score. So he compromised. He placed excerpts from the essays, in small type-face, as prefaces to each movement.

Essays Before a Sonata contains six chapters: a prologue, essays corresponding to the movements, and an epilogue. Reading about the transcendentalists and their philosophy in prose is somewhat less mystifying than hearing about their philosophic sensibilities in music. Here, for instance, is Ives searching for what he calls "substance" in the first paragraph. "How far is anyone justified . . . in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?"

He wrote the bulk of the Concord Sonata between 1909 and 1915; the slow movement, "The Alcotts," began as a sketch in 1904. Because of its difficulty and Ives’s iconoclasm the entire piece wasn’t premiered until 1938, when Ives was sixty-five. John Kirkpatrick’s debut of the sonata was proclaimed by the New York Herald Tribune music critic Lawrence Gilman as

the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication. It is wide-ranging and capacious. It has passion, tenderness, humor, simplicity, and homeliness. It has imaginative and spiritual vastness. It has wisdom and beauty and profundity, and a sense of the encompassing terror and splendor of human life and human destiny—a sense of those mysteries that are both human and divine.

I can’t tell you how many times I listened to and marveled at the Nonesuch recording I owned, pianist Gilbert Kalish playing the Concord Sonata. Often, as I read Ives’s Essays, I listened to Kalish and felt the seamlessness between the music and the words Ives intended. His dual, though not dueling, voices was a Renaissance ideal to me: merging art forms, the two I most cherished, meant that I had a future, though I couldn’t say yet what it would sound/read like. With The Unanswered Question, I’d found a composer/writer who had succeeded at not giving up on one art for the other.


Six months’ pregnant and, week by week, Annie got pokier and porkier. It was odd, she said, that sitting at the weaving loom one day she felt her now projectile-like belly touching then pressing then pushing on the loom’s front beam. Women stopped her on the street or stared, slack-jawed, from passing cars. One, with a double stroller, warned, "There’s more than one." Which she told me later and I said, "Impossible."

We were married in July. My brother Steve drove out for the wedding with a hot, panting golden retriever. Mother flew in. We had warned her we were pregnant. But when she saw Annie’s bulge, she surprised us: She refused to talk about the child until we were married. She didn’t say this. We inferred it from her pouty behavior. Mother stood by tradition: A gal gets married first before she has the baby. All these new ways of living and marrying, I could tell, my mother took as a personal affront. But once hitched, we did get her blessing, albeit tepid. Two years after Dad’s death, Mom seemed to have survived the loss, though she was chronically sad. She said she’d visit twice a year. Oh yes, please come and help, I thought. And we’d reciprocate, fly to Florida every other Christmas, where Santa wears Bermuda shorts. Mother paid for a crib and a high chair and a dozen pastel sleepers, plus gave us $2,000. I spent half on a vintage Martin guitar while Annie outfitted our newly rented two-bedroom adobe house, a few doors away at 546 Canyon, with more baby goods.

In the meantime, I got hired to teach folk guitar at the College of Santa Fe. This nicely augmented my steady troop of guitar students at a local music store. I had some dough in my wallet, and I wasn’t immune to Annie’s admonishment: You are going to help pay for these kids, aren’t you?

I finally decided to go back to school at the College of Santa Fe. I signed up, starting in January, for classes in harmony, lessons in classical guitar, and choral ensemble.

One afternoon, on our way to Lamaze class, I noticed Annie’s tummy, sticking out nuclear-warhead-style.

"How do you feel, sweetheart?"

"Fat," she said. Her maternity dress, draping her protrusion, was getting shorter. "Fat and ugly."

To get in the car, Annie levered the front seat all the way back. "This feels weird. I think there’s two babies kicking me. I want to go see Richard, OK?"

"Anything you want," I said.

Richard was our homeopathic doctor who, along with midwife Marian, would deliver the baby in our back bedroom. His office held an examining table with a Navajo blanket on it. Large glass jars filled with tiny spore-like homeopathic pills glistened on the shelves. Annie had been on an herbal muscle relaxer.

This time Annie wanted Richard and Marian to listen for the heartbeat.

Stethoscopes flanked her convexity while doctor and midwife clocked silent finger-beats in the air, which coincided, more or less. "That’s one noisy baby," Richard said. "I don’t think there’s two."

"I don’t know," Annie said, with questioning defiance, pulling down her muumuu.

Marian suggested a sonogram.

A week later, I helped Annie duck-walk into a lab at St. Vincent’s Hospital. The female technician rubbed a glossy oil on her belly, then applied the electronic, super-sensitive roller wand.

"Watch the screen, here, Mister and Missus Larson," the perky tech said.

The screen fizzed silently to life with white and grey lines forming, disappearing, quavering into a shape only the tech could decipher.

"How does it work?" I asked.

She said the wand bounces sound waves off the stomach and the screen reads the density of the solids the waves come in contact with. "Usually it reads bone or skin masses in the baby’s body. All of it is reproduced visually—there! There’s the head."

I got excited, Annie got excited. But neither of us saw a head. Too many gelatinous and moire-like fields. The screen, though, seemed to say our big little girl was alive, shimmering and oozing in gravity-less peace.

"There, there’s the head. And what is that? A leg curled beside. My goodness. There’s a little penis and there, there’s— oh my gosh," and she laughed a laugh, inappropriately giddy.

"What is it?" I said.

"What it is—I hope you’re ready—is twice the fun. Double trouble. There’s one body. See the head? And over here, see the other head?" On the glinting screen she was pointing a gaudy red nail at the mass. "And there—and there—are the tiny penises. You two have twins. Twin boys."

"I knew it," Annie shouted. "I knew it!" She pulled my sleeve like a schoolteacher pulling a surly child into recess line. "Are you ready, Tom?"

"Wait a minute," I said to the tech. "I don’t believe it. Show me again." She did. "Oh my God," I said. "It’s impossible!"

They shared another laugh.


Printing out our souvenir Polaroid photo, the tech said she couldn’t tell if they were fraternal or identical. "Doesn’t really matter, does it? Two is two, maybe one too many, ’aye, Mister Larson?"

At the car, I loaded my double-barreled wife in. She was beaming. I felt like sod.

"Tom, the truth is, you’ll never be ready for a child. No man is. But I got news for you. They’re on their way." It was said victoriously, Hirohito the morning of December 7.

That evening, we attended a dinner party at Annie’s partner’s home. Beers in hand, big announcement, cheers all round, men pounding my back as if I’d medaled in the male Olympics. I watched Annie watch me tremble as each person we knew hugged her then shook my hand—their joy their joy, not mine—an hour standing around in my black turtleneck sweater and hand-woven vest which my wife, the fiber artist, Annie Kaufman, had, that week, finished crocheting and insisted I wear to this party—"It looks so good on you"—until I fairly drug her to the car. I couldn’t stand any more public display of whatever it was I was feeling: indignation? terror? remorse?

We were driving home, around Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe’s horseshoe-shaped street that circles the inner part of the city. I didn’t turn off. I kept following the horseshoe.

"Do you know," I said, "I have never in my life felt fated until this day. There’s nothing I can do to change what’s happened. It’s all outside my control. It’s as if everything in my life was preordained to lead me, to lead us, to this very moment."

"Control," she snickered. "What are you afraid of?" Hands and arms rested atop her extrusion.

"What am I not afraid of."

"Surely you’re not afraid of being a good father to your— two boys, Tom?"

Was that a rib? I wondered. I thought I detected a rib. Now I was turning onto Canyon. Always we came back to Canyon Road. Chickens and parents coming home to roost.

Afraid? Two boys meant brothers, my brother Steve and me all over again, one up, one down, one falling down, one getting up. This couldn’t be! I parked. Handbrake. Sighed. Slumped. Closed my eyes. Lids like wind-trembled curtains. Out from under which the dragon of autobiographical certainty scurries, pursued by some scaly, amniotic thing, chortling and fuming.

"Relax," Annie was shaking my shoulder. "You’ll make a wonderful dad. You were raised good. We’ll have a fine family." She poked my arm. "Just follow your heart." She pointed to our casita. "Can we go in? I’m beat."


Under my bed and beside the guitar case was another stowaway from my past: a box of my other, now ancient rapture—the writing I’d done before I met Annie. It was safe, saved for this and other futures. When I peeked in and read a bit, I found that other literate-minded person. I was still him. In fact, I’d never quit reading: music histories, novels, poems, an occasional phantasmagoric book like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with its alluring subtitle, An Enquiry Into Values, a memoir-essay in which the author recounts a father-son road trip across America and contrasts, in alternating sequence, the growing tension of the trip itself with a Greek-infused argument about the meaning of Quality. Ives’s music had aerated my musical vein; his writing had re-connected me to those metaphysical/aesthetic questions composers and scholars had examined before me and I still wanted in on. No question was more key than the one Leonard Bernstein intoned in one Harvard lecture: "Why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?"

My box of writing was my dark familiar. Years in and out of college were devoted to prose poems; a lousy autobiographical novel; a portrait of a high-school flame; letters of infatuation from Terri, recording her love and our fall; studies of Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, and Arthur Rimbaud, each a brawny impassioned argument for the author, which I now see as memoiristic.

Being a musician eased but could not assuage the thoughts I had about fate and childbirth. I could tell what my desire to dive under the bed was all about. With the birth of twins imminent, I was relishing any certainty I could find. And where does one find it? In what’s known.

With Ives as my mentor, I could set my sights on the confusing dimensions of language, thought, and sound, hope to understand the link between writing and music as well as make it part of my compositions. I didn’t know how to do this, but doing it under the auspices of college would help. I just felt—and I was thrilled to admit it—that I could live musically without my writing.

I remembered where my twin enchantments came from. In my 1950s Presbyterian choir, our singing "America"—My country ’tis of thee—that standard warm-up. What an effortless song it was, with its scale-wise melody, its marching rhythm, its held and syncopated notes in each phrase, its lovely self-conscious line, "Of thee I sing." Indeed, the music is the country; making the music makes My Country exist. The sung lines, "Land where my fathers died" and "Land of the pilgrims’ pride," were reasons why we "Let freedom ring." Music tied the lyric to the point. As song, the tune bulleted its way to the patriotic heart faster than any senator’s speech might. And the tune’s words were critical, for they comprised the music’s mystery and explained it.

Of course, I could just leave music alone to its own devices. Music doesn’t care. But I do. If I bring words to bear on the music I play and hear, via study and writing, I keep the tension between the mystery and the explanation alive. For me the tension between language and music is it, the gray area they inhabit when together. I was realizing just how much I loved this.

Ives wrote that if we live with confusion "long enough," it will birth order. Here I was, facing two births—the birth of our twins to Annie and me and the birth of a new expression, language unmooring music and vice versa, to me alone. I told myself not to be afraid that two boys would unhinge me or my path. Fate had merely widened its gates. Someday the order chaos was so insistent I seek would come.