Sunday, June 15, 2003

Lovers, Dreamers, Fighters, Seekers:

My hero of the week, and I know it's been a long time, is Hoagy Carmichael.

God bless you and keep you, poet, comic, lover, seeker, and thank you for your music.

Hoagy Carmichael tried to be what he shouldn't. Who doesn't? He was born in 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana. His mom played piano at the movies, and he learned piano at home, by ear. I still think that's the best way, but maybe that's just because I was never much good at music lessons. Anyway, he dropped out of school at 16. And why not?

Hoagy had shit jobs--as a teen, he worked 12 hours every night at a cement mixer. That must have sucked. But in a way, it must have been good, too. Nothing like a shit job to awaken the songwriter inside you, and prick your ear to the call of the muse. That was when, in Indianapolis, he met a black ragtime pianist named Reggie Duvall, and his whole life changed.

I think Hoagy always knew in his heart he was destined for music, and for greatness, but he was a white boy in Indiana with duties and a set of expectations to fulfill. At 20 he moved back home and went back to high school. Can you imagine? 20 years old, trying to finish high school because, well, what else was he supposed to do? Work at a cement mixer the rest of his life? How did he know what else he might be capable of?

He finished high school and went on to get a law degree. Can you imagine the composer of "Pennies From Heaven" trying to be a lawyer in Florida, where he'd moved, in the 1920s? He couldn't either, in the end. He'd been writing songs all along, and playing in little college bands, and one day when he heard a recording someone had done of one of his songs, "Washboard Blues," he said Fuck It. After years of going back and forth, endlessly threatening to "drop this music racket for good," he quit law, moved back to Indiana, and decided to go for broke as a musician. He was nearly 30.

I guess Indiana was his creative magnetic home. One night, sitting on a wall at the University of Indiana (the "spooning wall," it was called), pining for a girl, a melody came to him. The song was "Stardust."

Hoagy wrote a lot of great songs (including "Georgia On My Mind"), but "Stardust" is my favorite. I think Willie Nelson maybe understands Hoagy Carmichael the best. He named his best album after "Stardust," and sang Hoagy's songs with a love so true and a heart so broken it couldn't do anything but beat on.

Hoagy loved "Stardust," too. Here's what he said about it--and I think he speaks for a lot of musicians, hearts ripped open by life, and by love, wondering at the moment of grace, when the muse descends:

"This melody was bigger than I. It didn't seem to be a part of me. Maybe I hadn't written it at all. It didn't sound familiar, even... I wanted to shout back at it, 'Maybe I didn't write you, but I found you!'"


And now the purple dust of twilight time

Steals across the meadows of my heart

Now the little stars, the little stars pine

Always reminding me that we're apart

You wander down the lane and far away

Leaving me a love that cannot die

Love is now the stardust of yesterday

The music of the years gone by.

Sometimes I wonder why I spend

The lonely nights

Dreaming of a song

That melody haunts my reverie

And I am once again with you

When our love was new

And each kiss an inspiration

Ah, but that was long ago

Now my consolation

Is in the stardust of a song

Beside a garden wall

Where stars are bright

You are in my arms

That nightingale tells its fairy tale

of paradise where roses grew

Though I dream in vain

In my heart it will remain

my stardust melody

The memory of love's refrain.

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