Daily Dose: Nat King Cole

When I was a kid, I suffered from night terrors that would prove to be a lifelong affliction. In the earliest one I remember, my childhood dog was ravaged by a roaming pack of wolves that crashed through my bedroom window and brought the fight into bed with me. Then, after the delinquent parents of some neighbor kids down the street allowed the viewing of an R-rated vampire flick, the night terrors got real weird, real fast. My mother had a stroke of genius and created “Monster and Wolf Go-Away Spray”, a mixture of water and a few drops of her perfume with which I would douse every nook and cranny of my room under the assurance that the concoction would repel unwanted visitors. Because fear is relative, the trick worked for a time, but, unfortunately, its effectiveness began to fade as I grew older.

In middle school I began listening to music while I fell asleep since night terrors one night often inspired insomnia in the next–a fear to sleep for fear of what may come. Mostly classical at first–movie soundtracks, Erik Satie, etc–but this was too light. Then I moved onto the harder stuff, like Bush, but that was too much. Then I found the sound that was just right: Nat King Cole. Jaunty and melodic, there are nothing but feel-good rhymes, sentimental songs, and finger-snapping tunes that come from his smooth and perfectly pitched voice. There was something about falling asleep to this aura that soothed me completely, and from that point forward I listened to music of his sort every time I slept alone.

As life has gone on longer and times they’ve gotten tougher, Nat’s voice has seen me through the roughest of it–namely the loss of the two brightest guiding lights in my life. As I wrote some time ago, Nat King Cole held a prominent role in the soundtrack I orchestrated for my father’s funeral when I was just 26. I also included him in the mix the night we said our final goodbye to a beloved grandmother just last year. These were deliberate choices, to be sure, but on other pivotal occasions he has found a way to appear free of personal selection.

Two years after burying my father, we sold the rambling ranch home I had grown up in and left Los Angeles for good. We packed my childhood into boxes and sold what didn’t fit, hauling the load to San Diego where we had summered all my life to be nearer my father as he followed the race track circuit south each year from June through August. Now the place was our permanent home, my mother’s mostly but also mine too, and after a long, exhausting day, my uncle suggested we go out to dinner. We showered up and ventured down the road to a restaurant my father had watched in each stage of construction, poking his head in for opening updates and assuring the owners that he and his girls would be their first diners. We were and the place was a favorite family eatery thereafter because it was good but also because it was close to home.

That night, I sipped my glass of wine, chatted with my mom and favorite uncle, and commented on the music playing softly in the background–a well-curated mixture of indie and contemporary music. Then it happened. Anathema to any music that played before or after it, Nat King Cole’s “Smile” came up in the queue. Since this is the song I chose to play at my father’s funeral, the one that played as my mother and I left the church, arm in arm, it stopped our table cold. No one said a thing since to speak would be to sob. We shook our heads, took an extra hard drink of our preferred poison (black coffee for mother, wine for we drinkers), and individually sighed heavily. We finally made eye contact, and my mom said “That can’t be a coincidence.”

Later that night I asked our waiter who had made the playlist for the evening. Turns out, it was Pandora–a randomly selected station that played randomly selected songs. Meaning Nat King Cole had found his way into our moment to soothe the fear of what may come, or perhaps he was sent to us from another stratosphere by a bundle of Stardust energy from beyond doing what it had always done best: protecting its girls.

 

Throwback Thursday: Elvis and My Father Comeback

Our musical education starts young, and is largely influenced by our parents in its infancy. I’ve oft hypothesized that you either grow up in a Beatles household, or an Elvis abode–that the two seem to be mutually exclusive. My father was a HUGE fan of the King. To my teenage horror, he would roam the house doing impressions: singing with his lip curled and pulling Presley tunes from his diaphragm. I even inherited a sweat-stained scarf he allegedly (according to lore from his own mouth) fought a woman for after Presley had tossed it into the audience at a show. To reassure you, the provenance of the item is legitimate, but the process of acquisition is suspect; my father could tell a tale.

Elvis Presley remains an integral thread in the fabric of our American heritage, he cannot be ignored, but he is also a controversial icon. Largely credited with the creation of Rock and Roll, he is also criticized as a thief for stealing music played more authentically by its originators, black musicians, and making money from their sweat with his white face and bedroom eyes. He was also a drugged-out psychotic who commodified women, loved guns to an uncomfortable degree, and was drunk on the power of his own mystique. Greil Marcus (my idol) discusses Elvis’ legacy as it relates to the American landscape far better that I in Mystery Train, which I suggest you read if you want to follow this thought further.

As with most criticisms, however, there is always a counter-argument. Elvis grew up dirt poor on the wrong side of the tracks, literally, so it stands to reason that he would absorb the rhythm and blues prevalent in the black community with which he interacted, bonded as they were in their poverty. He was also incredibly generous and while his taste was ostentatious and his entourage  absurd, it’s easy to interpolate from these facts the underlying insecurities that drove the King of Rock and Roll–he would always be the Mississippi mama’s boy with dirt under his fingernails from scratching his way up into the world. To displace this, he lived lavishly and showered all he knew, even mere acquaintances, with finery as if to remind himself that he had made it, but also for the joy of giving and having. Once you taste the P in Poor, you never again want that flavor on your tongue and are compelled to spare others from the same.

My father was a lot like Elvis Presley. The plot lines of his early years were the same but different, the generosity almost identical if not financed on a lower level. I have a feeling he understood this even if he didn’t consciously dissect it’s meaning. The last years of his life were difficult and did not befit his stature, just as the way the world lost the King did not jive with all that he had given. No man who savored company as sweetly and cared for his loved ones so thoroughly as these two should have died alone, and in this respect I will always mourn the passing of them both with a pang of regret. When Elvis died, the world sobbed together and sort of lost their minds. When my father died, I grew up fast and soundtracked his last moments aboveground with an Elvis song. After all, my father had left the building.

This Throwback Thursday happened because I stumbled upon an uncut version of Elvis Presley’s glorious 1968 NBC Comeback Special. 1968 was a heavy year of world-wide social upheaval, and in its midst comes a svelte, leather-clad Elvis, looking better than he ever did before and ever would again, singing stories in an intimate setting. This is how I prefer to remember Elvis, and not as the bejeweled Las Vegas spectacle he became. After rolling through the Presley catalog like a stroll down memory lane, the special ended with the debut of “If I Can Dream”–a call for hope in a time seemingly gone made, and now, through the fog of nostalgia, a thought to guide a daughter growing older in a vacuum.

Regina Spektor, “Blue Lips”

The last few months my father was alive, he was bedridden. First by choice, but then without it. He passed the time by reading magazines and scanning the Sports Section of the LA Times for news of his beloved Dodgers, or perhaps the Lakers. Depending on the season.

Then he stopped; he must have had his fill. No longer interested in much, he would stare at the ceiling for hours and then at his hands, which he would hold above him, repeat the same motions and shake his head in disbelief as if to say, “These are not my hands. Not MY hands.”

Palm up. Palm down. Palm up. Fist. Palm down.

Papa

It’s interesting, what memories remain. John Berger states in his collection of essays titled About Looking that only the frame of a life continues, while the rest, the idiosyncratic experiences that act as content, is like daily newsprint: forgotten practically before the ink is dry. My memories seem to follow suit. I remember my childhood vaguely as happy and well adjusted, but individual memories have largely become the fodder of yesterday’s news, composted into the foundation of my adult life. They are my maker, and I not their master. Blame this on one too many nights of heavy drinking during my “experimental” college years, the fact that computer memory now substitutes for its organic human predecessor, or whatever you desire. Regardless of the reason, in the wake of my father’s death I’m acutely aware of what my memory chooses to frame.

As a wee little lassie my Father would take me with him to pick up a Racing Form from the local newsstand around the corner from our humble house situated in a Horse Racing mecca at the southern end of California. I piled my gangly, uncoordinated limbs into his Acura, which always smelled new with a hint of the vanilla air fresheners so despised by my Mother, and away we’d go through traffic with the greatest of ease.  He navigated using a system I would come to call ‘Blind Driving”–a technique which entailed drifting from one lane divider to the next. From the center, slowly to the left until eanh eaNH EANH!! Thwump thwump thwump. Whoops. Center again and then the process repeated to the right of the lane. Back and forth, back and forth; a relatively soothing sway to an unlicensed driver with no concept of danger.

It was during these trips that I came to understand I was special because my Father had magic powers: he controlled traffic lights. When approaching a red light, my Father merely had to blow in its general direction and the light magically turned green. My Father was the Jack Frost of traffic control.  Once we arrived, I waited for him in the car certain he’d return with a treat. What would it be this time?  A lollipop? A Kit Kat? No, a Snickers?! It was anyone’s guess. Inevitably he’d shower me with more candy than one kid could stomach (a diabetic vicariously indulging his sweet tooth through his daughter), and we would eat most of it in the car so my Mother would be none the wiser. While exceeding my sugar intake for the week, he taught me  how to whistle and snap: two valuable assets for a tomboy living in the Land of the Boys. I cannot convey how many hours were spent snapping and whistling. Or rather my Father snapping and whistling and I snapping and spraying soundless wet air onto the Acura’s dash, much to his chagrin.

I never did learn to whistle. As for my Father’s magical powers, well, I suppose you can chalk it up to a slight of wind executed by watching the opposing signal as it turned yellow and thusly timing his gust to coincide with an inevitable green. Be that what it may, I know what I remember. I remember a life filled with green lights, free passages, and cloudless intersections thanks in no small part to my  Father’s protection and guiding wisdom. And now that this memory is framed in print, saved from the cyclical scourge of forgetfulness, my Father’s magic is no longer a hazy biographical fragment  but an integral component of narrative in the story of a daughter and her father. Act I, Scene I.

Curtain.