I remember a chilly afternoon almost 30 years ago. I was crossing Tappan Square at Oberlin, it was cold, my Navy pea coat wasn’t warm enough and since I’d never succumb to the shapelessness of down, I was freezing per usual. Pale yellow light with gray in it — to recreate it would require dipping a stick of chalk in a beaker of dilute urine, not that I have ever done such a thing — the hue of lake-effect-snow about to start.
I wore two Benetton scarves, pink and teal, which I wound together into an impromptu lattice every time I went outside. I was so damn cold. Walking from the art history building back home, to my room of happy misanthropes and adorable psychohistorians (psychohistory was a major, back then). And I ran smack into Pete Yarrow.
I knew he was there to perform with Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, which must have been an awesome show for faculty and people schlepping in from Cleveland. (The next day I saw Ronnie, a kind-looking lady with grandmotherly curls, also in Tappan Square.) Not that my friends and I would ever have attended that show. We were too busy trying to remove pumpkin-scented candle wax from an Eva Hesse sketchbook stupidly loaned by the art museum to pyromaniac students.
But back to Pete Yarrow, freezing his ass off too. Today I’d have made a fuss, thanked him for the songs I heard on the car radio just 13 years before while a little kid en route to my family’s ski house on many a dark Friday night.
But in 1985, I said, Whoops, kept sprinting (it was so damn cold) and then thought, Wow, that was Pete Yarrow.
Lately I have been thinking about death more than usual. Given my general lifelong macabre gestalt, we’re talking quite a bit of thought. How healthy people sicken and don’t get well. I’m not a Mets fan, but I remember all the players from 1986, one year after I plowed into Pete Yarrow. Mookie, Dykstra, Gary Carter. The exuberant Gary Carter of almost 30 years ago, shown photographed in a golf cart not long before his death last week, bloated by steroids for his terminal brain cancer. Trying to smile. Nothing worked.
Certain things just don’t get better.
A year after my Pete Yarrow collision, I was working for a publisher, taking a break from school thanks to an illness which luckily did get better. The ragtag editorial staff and I followed the World Series. A freelancer named Chester Weiner (love it) explained baseball to me, played Nina Hagen too loud on bad headphones and asked why I refused the office mousse truffee.
Almost 30 years later I still see the wet greasy spots on the paper plates in that historic stone building facing the Great Neck train station.
I need to think more about today. As a friend from then and now tells me, repeatedly and with flagging patience, “Let the past wash over you!” And each time I ask him, What song IS that?
In an effort to throw a wrench in his plans to get me thinking current, I present to you my latest playlist: “Past Washing Over.”
Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Circle Game” (avoid the latter at all costs for at least three weeks after an old friend dies).
Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” (live and not live).
Phish’s “Backwards Down the Number Line” (yes, it’s from this decade, and yes, I secretly really, really like Trey Anastasio).
Byrds: “Ballad of Easy Rider,” “My Back Pages,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and the fuchcotah “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
JT’s “Sweet Baby James” and “You Can Close Your Eyes.”
Carpenters’ “Superstar” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
And the Peter, Paul and Mary version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” It’s remastered. Pete Yarrow comes in strong through my right speaker.
Note: I’ve kept “Thunder Road” off the list. That’s all I need. “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” I get weepy with that one, even when I’m not dredged in this dense, gloppy cornmeal of Remember When.
What the hell should I be listening to, Katy Perry?