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Thursday, March 05, 2009
Nilsson Sings Newman
Buddha : 1970
FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW
Available on: King of the Road
Bear Family : 1994
FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW
My Name Is Buddy
Nonesuch : 2007
LOVER IN THE SNOW
Available on: Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Geffen : 1997
STEAL SOFTLY THROUGH SNOW
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica
Reprise : 1969
HUMIDITY BUILT THE SNOWMAN
Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings
Oh Boy : 1995
Last week I went to a land of snow, though not the land of ice and snow. I skied, which hasn't happened in years, and skied fairly well, which hasn't happened in about as many years. My only goal was not to fall. I also met some new people and found them all to be very nice, which surprised me. I had forgotten that about people. I should get out more.
While I was in the snow, one of my friends was also on vacation, though she went to a land where it never snows. She was going on her trip, in part, to forget something unpleasant. I won't say whether it was an unpleasant circumstance within her family, or an unpleasant work experience, or an unpleasant relationship. The point is that she was trying to forget, and using distance and difference as tools to do so. She went somewhere with a beach, which made for nice symmetry: her surf, my snow. We figured we'd both be out of the reach of technology, but we forgot that nearly every remote outpost has the dreaded internet, and that the reach of cell phones is now roughly equal with the reach of the human species.
My first day in the land of the snow, it was sunny and warm. People skied in jeans and light jackets. The second morning I woke up to a blizzard. Snow was coming down everywhere. I was determined to get to the mountain early, and so I went tromping out in my ski boots, picked up my skis from the rack outside the hotel, and waited for the shuttle bus to take me to the base of the mountain. When I got there, I got into the lift line and realized that I had forgotten my lift ticket. To say that I was aggravated is an understatement, but I had time, so I went back to the shuttle bus and back to the hotel to pick up my ticket. As I went into the hotel, I noticed that there were no footprints by the entrance. As a record of the morning, this was inaccurate. I had been there, and I assumed other people had been, too. But the snow that was falling had already erased them. I had forgotten my lift ticket, sure, but now the snow was forgetting me entirely. It was like natural amnesia.
When I picked up my lift ticket, I also loaded up my iPod with songs about snow, and pretty soon I saw that I wasn't the only one who had considered the connection between snow and memory. Randy Newman's "Snow," which was recorded by Harry Nilsson but left off the original version of Nilsson Sings Newman, describes snow as a medium where memories both live and die.
Snow The bluegrass standard "Footprints in the Snow" complicates the case considerably. The song--a staple of Bill Monroe's act that has been covered by dozens of musicians--tells the story of a man who has been separated from his lover and uses the snow to locate her. More specifically, he tracks her:
Fills the fields we used to know
And the little park where we would go
Sleeps far below
In the snow
It's all over and you're gone
But the memory lives on although
Our dreams lie buried
In the snow
Now some folks like the summertime when they can walk aboutThis seems like a nice story, right? His darling got lost, he went out to find her, snow helped, the end. But then the song turns, and makes it clear that it really was the end:
Strolling through the meadow green it's fun there no doubt
But give me the wintertime when snow falls all around
For I found her when the snow on the ground
Well, I traced her little footprints in the snow
I traced her little footprints in the snow
I can't forget the day my darling lost her way
I found her when the snow was on the ground
Well, I dropped in to see her there was a big round moonMiller's version is upbeat, almost chipper, and it's easy to overlook the fact that it's a love song about a frozen corpse. Ry Cooder shifts the story so that it's a cat in the snow, not a woman -- "My Name is Buddy," where his version appears, is a concept album about the American labor movement that uses anthropomorphic felines as characters -- but goes back to the older lyric in one important respect. While neither version disputes that the woman/cat in the song lost her way, Miller "can't forget that day" while Cooder (like Monroe before him) wants to "bless that happy day." Snow death is many things, but a blessing? It almost turns the tracking into stalking, and the death into a wished-for moment of revenge. That's even more plausible in Rivers Cuomo's "Lover in the Snow," which forgoes memory entirely for discovery.
Her mother said she just stepped out but would be returning soon
I found her little footprints and I traced them through the snow
I found her when the snow was on the ground
Now she's up in heaven she's with an angel band
I know I'm going to meet her in that promised land
But every time the snow falls it brings back memories
For I found her when the snow was on the ground
I wanna knowMy cell phone worked perfectly on the ski lift, and after the third run, legs burning a bit, I called my friend to compare notes. She was on the beach. "Interesting," she said. "Footprints are a pretty dicey issue here, too. You can run from here to there, and as long as you keep close to the water, pretty soon there's no record of it at all. On the other hand, if you're too many yards up on the sand, it's too dry, and the wind blows away any evidence of you. That middle band, where the sand is damp, is the one where footprints last for days. Are there different names for those different kinds of sand?"
What were you doing with my friend?
Out in the eve
Deep in the shady glen I saw you,
Lying with him, down in the snow,
Letting him do all of the things that he wants to
"You're cutting out," I said.
"My phone has worked fine all week," she said.
"Maybe it's mine," I said, and hung up.
She had gone too far into the issue, and I wanted to back off to a simpler, more elegant question: Is snow an instrument of memory or an instrument of forgetting? It was snowing harder, and I looked out at a creek, at the trees, at the other mountains in the distance. I didn't know anything about them except that I was among them. And then I wasn't. Let me be clear about this: it wasn't a mystical experience so much as a mathematical one, a calculation of proportion: when everything is covered by snow, what you forget most is yourself. Newman/Nilsson were right (personal pain is under there somewhere), but also deeply wrong (insisting that it be visible is an act of narcissism). Snow may not be time, exactly, but snowfall is a measure of it, a means of cutting human experience down to size. When I got to the top of the mountain, I went through a number of songs--Marvin Gaye's "Purple Snowflakes," Jonathan Richman's "Abominable Snowman in the Market"--until I found Captain Beefheart's "Steal Softly Through Snow," which is even clearer on the opposition between nature and man's desire to mark it:
Breaks my heart to see the highway cross the hillsAt the bottom of the run, my phone buzzed. It was my friend, leaving me a message. "I guess we got cut off," she said. "Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I'm doing fine. I'm not remembering as much about the bad thing as I worried I would. Sometimes I do, and it's not pleasant, but I'm not going to beat myself up about it. It'll pass, right?" She was right but I didn't call back to say so. Instead, I went back up the lift with John Prine's "Humidity Built the Snowman," a song about human limits that stubbornly indulges human hope:
Man has lived a million years and still he kills
The scientific nature of the ordinary manI didn't fall.
Is to go on out and do the best you can
Labels: ben, country, folk, pop
posted by Ben