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Etta James, Sadie Dunhill, and the tears for yesteryear

on January 23, 2012, 10:00am

“I have never been what you’d call a crying man,” Jake Epping states in Stephen King’s latest work, 11/22/63. It’s a running sentiment throughout the 849-page novel, which follows a time traveler (Epping) aimed at stopping the death of President John F. Kennedy. King, best known for his macabre fiction and the sensational, critically acclaimed The Dark Tower series, carves out an adventurous, sweeping, and emotional novella that takes the reader to 1958 and the years following. There are deathly sweet root beer floats, classic cars, and countless references to the author’s previous works, including his 1986 novel, It. What’s most fascinating about the book, however, is how endearing it all is. Two to three hundred pages into the story, you start thinking, Christ, I’d never want to leave. There’s this charming innocence to the way people lived during that era – from manners of speech to the fabrics of love to the unity of small town life. Admittedly, you’re not thinking about how fucked life was for some people – you know, like minorities? – and that’s because King only whispers about it. Instead, you’re too swept up in the glistening, Norman Rockwell-like details: family dinners, school dances, weekend getaways, and, um, pound cake. Did I mention love, too?

I cried after reading this book – which startled me. Like Epping’s character, I hardly cry. It’s not that I’m this chauvinistic male who thinks crying is for wimps, not at all. I’m a big fan of crying and an even bigger fan of those who cry well. In fact, I have this mental (and completely asinine) list of some of the best actors to cry in film. Mel Gibson? Tom Cruise? Your average psychopaths, I guess. In all seriousness, though, crying is an important part of life; it lets us release all the angst we’ve built up over short, or often long, periods of time. My problem is that I feel like I shed tears over the most insignificant things and it weirds me out. Did I cry when my mother was admitted to a psychiatric ward? No. But, pop in The Untouchables, let an hour and 30 minutes pass – roughly when “that Sean Connery scene” occurs – and I’m catching snot in my hands. This year has lead me to believe things might change; already I’ve cried twice. Once after reading the book I’m currently discussing here, and then last Friday at the news of Etta James’ death.

Okay, so that last part is only a half-truth, but only because of my situational discomfort. I was sitting in my office, doing half a dozen things, and I hardly had the concentration to really cry. It didn’t help that my door was open, either. However, that didn’t stop me from shedding a tear, or two, or three. What’s so perverse about this is that I’m not even a huge fan! Off the top of my head, I can’t even name two songs by James, but I can name one. And it’s that one song that triggered those tears, namely because it’s one of the most singular, beautiful tracks in music history. You guessed it… “At Last”. Let’s talk about it for a second.

Originally written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the musical Orchestra Wives, “At Last” was first recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with vocals provided by Ray Eberle and Pat Friday. (I only know this because of Wikipedia.) Prior to James’ death, I was convinced it was hers and it essentially is. Like Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Gary Jules’ take on Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”, James took the song on paper and breathed a soul into the notes and lines. Prior to 1960, it belonged to Gordon or Warren or Miller or whoever fiddled about with it. But after James issued the single, it would always be hers. Just listen to it! The strings that FedEx shivers down one’s neck, the balmy piano and percussion work that lures you in, and James’ velvet, mesmerizing vocals paint a timeless portrait assuring everyone that beauty truly does lie in simplicity. Few songs work with this sort of magic, and hardly anyone has ever conjured it since.

I’m quick to contend that’s the reason I cried on Friday, but in my heart, I know there’s a deeper reason. It goes back to my fruitless desire to live in the past. You see, I’m an increasingly nostalgic person, but it’s more problematic than that. Although I’m quick to fall for the current trends that capitalize on my past childhood (e.g. Teen Nick’s recent The 90’s Are All That programming, Urban Outfitters’ new line of neon-clad winter wear, or Yuck’s self-titled debut), I’m overwhelmed by this awkward nostalgia for periods of time I’ve never lived. Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris, deals with this conundrum. In it, Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter whose recent passion has skewed from the silver screen to that of the Golden era of literature. While in Paris, and appropriately at midnight, he finds a way to travel back to the 1920’s. He drinks with Hemingway, goes to parties with the Fitzgeralds, and falls for a woman named Adriana. Without spoiling too much, because it’s really a splendid film and Allen’s first grand slam in years, Michael Sheen tells Wilson early on, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

He’s not wrong, but to me, he’s not right, either. I just feel it’s more difficult than that. It’s not that I think a different time period is better; instead, I’m envious of certain aspects of particular eras. When listening to James belt out “At Last”, I yearn for a time when that was an essential track, where something so simple was considered landmark, where time felt so delicate. To me, today races by too fast. We’re juiced by the Internet and flogged by the rapidity of digital information. “At Last” is an absorbing track that slowly embraces you and asks for your time. You don’t listen to it while doing errands, or commuting on the train, or even while you’re writing at home. This is the activity. Personally, I don’t think our society is really cut out for that anymore. I also don’t think anyone could produce a track like this, either. Today, a singer like James would essentially be “pasteurized” in the studio, or oversold to countless ads, shattering the raw talent and its unique intimacy altogether. Maybe I’m wrong, or just making too general of assumptions, but it depresses me to cope with the present sometimes.

112263cover Etta James, Sadie Dunhill, and the tears for yesteryearThese feelings I have toward “At Last” mirror my thrill and enjoyment of King’s latest work. About halfway into the book, Epping – once again, the story’s time traveling protagonist – falls helplessly in love with another character named Sadie Dunhill. A troubled librarian, on the run from an abusive, psycho-sexual husband (classic King, amirite?), Sadie is dazzled by the man with the ultimate foresight. It’s less King and more Nicholas Sparks, but it’s a new side to Maine’s finest, and I went with it. I went a little too far, really. My love for these characters turned to obsession and eventually into a passionate respite from reality. I romanticized not only the characters, but their situations, and each page offered another extension on my mental trip back in time. I’d visualize quiet sunsets over healthy fields, I’d dream for the intimate nights where only souls could entertain and the digital escapes were still decades ahead, and I’d pine for the innocent, star-crossed romances – the sort of love sensationalized in songs by The Beach Boys or The Beatles. By the end, I think I cried because that trip had come to an end, and I realized it was all just a fantasy. There was no return.

Everyone has a tragic flaw. Mine is that I’m always looking for a way to escape the present; it’s just my nature. It should be no surprise then that my favorite film is Back to the Future or that my favorite band still remains The Beach Boys, a group whose best album (Pet Sounds) features a song titled, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”. What perfect poetry to underscore my dilemma: “Every time I get the inspiration/To go change things around/No one wants to help me look for places/Where new things might be found.” To play Devil’s advocate, new things surface left and right in today’s day and age, and I’m constantly surprised and bewildered by all of them. But, they’ll never pluck the same chords that Etta James’ “At Last” does for me. To reiterate Brian Wilson’s past fears, I guess I really wasn’t made for these times – maybe one day I’ll stop crying over that.

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