Posts Tagged ‘Baton Rouge’

Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks

Sunday nights I sometimes listen to the history of rock and roll show on radio station WBUS.  The show comes on at 9 P.M. and runs for two hours of music and interviews that last week featured Fleetwood Mac, a band that was hugely popular in the seventies and early eighties.

I wanted to turn the music up without disturbing my wife who was working at the computer, so I dragged a wooden chair from the dining room table and closed the doors of the kitchen and sat near the radio with a book to read during the commercials.  Then I listened late – for me at least – into the night.

Radio late at night in an otherwise silent house has a power it doesn’t have in the daytime when we are easily distracted.  It reminds me of listening to distant baseball games when I was a boy lying in bed in the dark with the Chicago or Boston stations fading in and out.  Or like the old war movies where a lone man is huddled next to a crystal radio set in an occupied French town tuning in the frequency until the words are clear, “This is London calling.”

So I listened to the old songs and the voices in the night while I read my book, until one of the songs broke through and took me back to a certain night in Baton Rouge, La. in 1981.

Tim and I shared the rent on a little house on Europe St. in the historic General Beauregard district of Baton Rouge.  Tim worked at a television station, making good money, almost enough to support his life style.  I was taking a novel writing class at LSU and was living on a budget.  I would walk the four or five miles to the university and back, then work on my book in the afternoon.

One day without any premeditation Tim went down to a car dealership and traded his old Datsun in on one of the new Dodge K cars, with air conditioning and a cassette player.  He brought it by the house that afternoon and said he thought we should take it for a cruise down to New Orleans to break it in that evening after work.

The tape player was a novelty.  We were still playing vinyl records on a turntable.  I walked down to a record store in the downtown section of Baton Rouge and bought a cassette of Stevie Nick’s first solo album, called “Bella Donna,” because I liked her picture on the cover.

As the first song off that album began to play last night I was instantly back on the highway running out of Baton Rouge in the dark night with the red glow of the oil refineries shining off the clouds. Then leaving the lights of the town behind, I remember how good it felt to be riding in a new car on a dark highway with the excitement of New Orleans waiting eighty miles down the road.

I don’t think we did much when we got there.  Had a Jax beer at the Napoleon Café, I guess, and walked through the French Quarter for an hour looking at the black kids tap dancing for dimes on the sidewalk and the exotic dancers working through the open doors on Bourbon Street.  Always in the French Quarter in those days there was the feeling that you might turn a corner and your life would change; a door would open, you would enter and never look back.

After awhile we returned to the car that was parked on a side street and rolled back out onto the highway.  Now the excitement was subdued and we turned the air conditioner off, rolled the windows down and let the music spill out into the hot Louisiana night.

I put the book down and leaned toward the radio as the music lit up the dark corners of my memory.  I remembered the glow in the clouds above the town, felt the hot air on my bare arm and saw Tim’s hand reaching out to turn the tape over in the machine. And the music flowed like an electric current in the night.

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I’m sitting here watching the snow fall on the hedges by the road, hoping the roads are clear enough for Leon’s bus to make it through.  But maybe he is already here, having driven through the early hours from Pittsburgh where he played last night.  Maybe he’s getting up and having breakfast at the Corner Room, his long white hair causing a stir as he makes his way through the crowded restaurant to a table by the window.

If all goes well, we will be sitting in the front row of the balcony at the State Theater in downtown State College at 8 tonight, and Leon Russell will sit down at the piano and that waterfall of notes that opens “A Song for You” will tumble down, and the lights will go low and a spotlight will shine on his white hat, white suit,white hair.

With some songs you recall the very first time you heard them, and that’s true for “A Song for You.”  I was lying in the darkness in the house on Europe Street in Baton Rouge, LA, with the radio on softly, maybe at midnight.  I heard that tumble of notes and then that strange, archaic voice with the undefinable Southern/Black Gospel accent croaking out this love song about loving you in a place where there’s no space or time.  It was haunting if you happened to be living in a tumbledown house in the old section of town, not far from the Mississippi, with the fires of the oil refineries on the far side of the river turning the night sky pink and red.

I was taking some writing classes at LSU, working on a manuscript that I thought of as an existential suspense novel that would finally peter out after 200 pages.  But the effort of imagination it required made everything else in my life incredibly intense and concentrated.  Songs and books, car rides to New Orleans or across the Atchafalya Basin, afternoons at the Cotton Club eating soft shell crabs, writing short stories about Florida and Tennessee that would be torn apart by would-be writers ten years younger than me but that I still hold dear, the heat and the smell of magnolia, jamabalya and creole seasoning – everything was seared into a track of my memory.  A lot of those memories are evoked when Leon’s piano trickles down those notes.

The snow is falling fast and there is still a long driveway to clear before it’s time to go.  Hang on Leon, we’re coming.  Don’t start without me.

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