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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

the music of time

My connection with the Buddhist sangha is maintained now through continuing monthly automatic withdrawals from my bank account. Even if I'm not currently (formally) practicing these teachings, I do believe in supporting them. As a result, I still receive copies of The Dot, "the quarterly newspaper of Shambhala", whose tag-line is "Nothing happens and we report it."

The autumn 2007 issue arrived yesterday in the mail. As I flipped through it while lying in bed, I felt pierced by feelings of recollection and nostalgia, as well as dissatisfaction and impatience. But I felt a jolt of surprise and recollection when I flipped to page 24 and found this headline: "Warrior in the World: David Nichtern".

I knew the name David Nichtern from 33 years ago, on the album cover of a record by Maria Muldaur. He was a guitarist, one of her musicians, and in fact the writer of her hit song, "Midnight at the Oasis". How many David Nichterns are there? The black-and-white photo accompanying the article: could that gray-haired guy in horn-rimmed glasses be the same as the ginger-haired, bearded young man on the album cover? Ye-e-es, it could: look at that faint, knowing, impish smile--that's the same, isn't it?

Indeed it was. I quickly saw "Midnight at the Oasis" mentioned in the article, and the fact that Nichtern has a career in music, as well as now being director of Buddhist studies and practice at OM Yoga in New York.

My gosh. Who knew? In 1974, when I was 15, "Midnight at the Oasis" was my favorite song, and I had a teen passion for Maria Muldaur, an olive-skinned, gypsyish beauty with a lovely warbling voice, a bit reminiscent of the folk singer Melanie. I would listen to the record and scan its jacket to learn what I could about its makers.

I noted that "Midnight at the Oasis", the only hit song on the album, was also the only song written by one of the musicians; the others (as I recall) were all covers--tunes like "My Tennessee Mountain Home" written by Dolly Parton. Why was that? I wondered.

I was fascinated by the phenomenon of writing--excited by the idea of writing as a basic creative act, which could take different directions: novel-writing, scriptwriting, songwriting, even writing computer programs. I was excited that all these different activities used that same creative verb, to write, and I wanted to do them all (and indeed have done them all). I wanted to be a writer in this total way.

My love of that song caused me to remember its creators, and I formed a kind of loose connection with it and them.

In 1980 I saw that Maria Muldaur was playing in Vancouver at a place called the Bombay Bicycle Club. Warren and I decided to go (he was able to fill me in on more information about Maria Muldaur--in particular that she had formerly performed in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the 1960s). We sat at the bar of the little club and soaked up about three sets of Maria Muldaur at close range. To my astonishment and delight, between sets she made her way to the bar and sat right next to us. Indeed, she had to brush right by us, making Maria Muldaur the most famous person I've ever actually physically touched. She didn't look at us or communicate with us; she seemed very withdrawn, even depressed, and sat in her black outfit, flipping through a newspaper, head down. But on stage she radiated smiles, power, and excitement. And she sang "Midnight at the Oasis" twice.

Next, in the winter of 1983, I saw that guitarist Amos Garrett was playing at the Town Pump in Gastown. He too had played on Maria Muldaur's first solo album, and since I was then playing guitar in my own garage band, I decided to check him out. He put on an excellent, all-instrumental show with his band, introducing the numbers with fairly technical comments about their musical qualities and style, much to the delight of the other musicians in the house, of which I'm sure there were many. He would call out challenges to the audience such as, "can you name this riff?"--seeing whether anyone could identify a particular riff he was playing (someone could! It was B.B. King). Anyway, I was thrilled when he played an instrumental version of "Midnight at the Oasis", including his guitar solo which itself became famous, at least among guitarists. (I was intrigued that he played with finger-picks, not a flatpick, as most guitarists do--and felt particularly glad that I'd received finger-picking training from my first guitar teacher, Barry Hall.)

Later, when I had hooked up with Kimmie, I turned her on to the Maria Muldaur album, which she loved. She even thought that she would like to put one of its tracks ("Don't You Make Me High (Don't You Feel My Leg)") on her "stripper" tape--a slate of tracks she would like do strip-teases to: a life-long ambition of hers. More of that, perhaps, another time...

Then, of course, I got into my own Buddhist "career", and got away from music. And last night, seeing David Nichtern's name in that unexpected place, brought all these memories flooding back. There was a sense of connection, of intertwining, such as that suggested in the Anthony Powell novel-series, A Dance to the Music of Time.

There are some benefits to aging, and this is one: opportunities for this kind of threading-together of the strands of life. A dance indeed.


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