Once upon a time in America
Sometimes, a particular song or an artist’s music becomes the soundtrack for an era. The music by the three-man band who called themselves America is like that. They just sound like the late sixties, early seventies.
I was thirteen years old in 1974. Somehow, I had come into possession of a dispossessed Zenith AM/FM Tuner Stereophonic Radio. It didn’t work, only making a fuzzy static noise as you turned the dial up and down the scale. The wood-grain case was broken, so I removed it to have a look at the innards. I could see two wires were obviously pulled loose from their transistors, so I borrowed Dad’s soldering iron and a spool of solder and set to work reattaching the copper wires. Imagine my delight when I turned the dial to KLIF 1190 and the crackling yielded to a somewhat hissy but mostly clear “Lonely People” by the immensely popular band, America. The song was number five on Billboard’s Hot 100 list and I was hearing it for the very first time on my rescued radio.
The lonely people and church folk
I was raised on The All-American Church Hymnal, compiled by Earl Smith and John T. Benson; southern gospel eight-tracks featuring The Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen Quartet, and Elvis; and country music by the likes of Hank Williams and Johnny Horton. There was no place in my Dad’s home for the evils of Rock ‘n’ Roll, nevermind Elvis Presley was called the King of Rock and Roll and Mom was in love with him since she was a teen. Elvis singing gospel was a go. Rock and Roll was a big fat no.
Nevertheless, there on my makeshift carport workbench, which consisted of three wooden Dr. Pepper bottling crates, two on their ends and the third laid flat across them, my coverless radio belted out the forbidden tune, which, as it turns out, was written by a Christian convert as a retort to a Beatles’ song. Dan Peek wrote the song and recorded it with his band partners Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley. Peek’s songs had soul and spiritual overtones. They were songs for seekers.
He said when he wrote the song, he was thinking about what it would be like “to wake up and not know anybody.”
“Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup.”
I used this line from the song as an inspirational quote in a morning team huddle at work the other day. I asked if anyone knew what sport was referenced. I asked this because I assumed I DID know. Our resident Canadian “correctly” guessed hockey. This is a longstanding tradition in professional hockey: when a team wins the Stanley Cup, each member gets to keep the cup for a short time and the victors sip champagne from the hallowed chalice.
Turns out, it wasn’t sports-related at all. It was spiritually charged. Peek, the song’s author, made this even more clear after he left the band to embark on a spiritual journey and launch a career as a Christian artist. He began singing the song this way: “Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup and give your heart to Jesus Christ.”
How about that for a bit of trivia on a song you had no idea had anything to do with Jesus?
Sounds like yesterday to me
Anyways, America just sounds like yesterday to me. (Of course, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” sounds like yesterday to me, too.) Their first single, Horse with no Name, was a massive hit and still holds up today as one of the great songs from that era.
I would like to give you the meaning behind the horse-and-desert song, but I cannot, and here is why:
I am glad the horse had no name. If it had been named Sparky or Silver or Horace or something, the song would have been way less mysterious and enthralling.
Which of us has not felt that song somewhere in our lonely bones, even if we did not understand it quite?
Ordinarily, we would associate the desert with some dry spell where our wits and will are tested to the extreme and the rain is something to pray for and welcome when it finally falls. On the contrary, here, the rider on the nameless horse welcomes the isolation and aridity of the desert. To him, it “felt good to get out of the rain.”
I remember me
In the desert, you “can remember your name.”
In the desert, you are alone, on your own, you and your nameless horse, beneath a billion stars. In other places, clouds crowd the sky and city lights obscure the stars The dog-eat-dog world is teeming with people clamoring to be heard, but in the lonely desert, you get to know yourself.
Yesterday, I was in a hurry to leave behind my youth. But I was young. And stupid. I thought it would be better to be older, more independent, calling my own shots, going my own way, deciding which music I wanted to listen to without my parents’ censoring. (Now, I am all grown up and Facebook and Twitter do the censoring.)
I thought time was my enemy because it dragged by so slowly. I had places to be. I had something to become!
I am now well past where I thought I was going.
I must have missed the magic exit to Utter Fulfillment. I also blew right by Fortune Avenue and Fame Boulevard, not to mention Easy Street. I never even saw them. I just missed the signs, I guess.
I did take a few detours and I went a long way the wrong way once or twice.
So, now all I want is for time to slow down, to give me a minute to catch my breath, to gather my thoughts, to study this dadgum map or download the right app. You know, the “everything you ever wanted and more” app.
My answer for slowing down time is to turn on music. Then, I hear America or Willie or The Happy Goodmen…and I am back where I started. This time, I pay attention to the sights, the sounds, the lessons, the love, the yearning, the burning, the music…of my life. I remember me and I am glad.