BELL BOTTOM BLUES

For those who share these memories …

How often it is, a long unheard but well remembered song triggers a cascade of memories, unbidden yet vivid, some pleasant, some bittersweet, some heartbreaking. This morning “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes popped up on my iPhone as I was out running errands, and it happened.
Suddenly I was back in the college grill shooting the breeze with my usual group of guys and girls, when one of our friends walked in with that loose-jointed saunter we all knew so well, his lank, shoulder-length hair swaying with every stride. With a bemused smile and a sigh, he slumped down in our booth and plopped his books onto the table just as “Bell Bottom Blues”, no doubt selected by one of us, ten cents a song, three for a quarter, dropped onto the spindle of the jukebox.
He had a rather long, clean-shaven face with angular features and wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose. He perked up at the opening guitar chords and proceeded to expound on how wonderful it was to have friends who understood and appreciated good music as opposed to so much of the drivel passing for music on the radio. In fact, he expounded almost all the way through “Bell Bottom Blues” so that we did not get to really listen to the song. But that was our friend, and his foibles were accepted along with his many fine qualities because, well, because he was our friend.
I lost a little part of me a few years back when I heard that he had, in the words of one of our gang from those days, “finally succeeded in drinking himself to death.”

Our friend’s family lived a few south of the campus in a house his parents had designed and built on land purchased from his mother’s mother. It sat in a densely wooded area, a two-story, white, wood-framed house, reached by a gravel road running down the left side of a large pasture before diving into the woods and winding through the trees to a small clearing just large enough for the house. We were always welcome there.
His father was a usually taciturn but occasionally engaging artist who had moved into management at the advertising firm to better provided for his family. He composed symphonies on the side. My friend’s mother had taught school but now kept home. She had wavy hair, freckles, and a ready smile and warm hug. His younger sister was a delicate flower with long, straight hair who loved horses. His younger brother was the only high school aged kid I knew who was an avid Elvis fan.
From this milieu sprang my friend, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, piano, and drums, to my knowledge) who could read music and excelled at math and science. He was prone to the outrageous statement such as “Steve Earle is god!” His musical taste ran from the Romantic symphonies of Shostakovich to the acoustic harmonies of Bread to the blues of Mose Allison to the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers. Our tastes coincided on most points, but I could not quite make it all the way to Bread. America was as far as I could go down that road. He was smart, frequently unfocused, always open-handed, a chain smoker, and a true friend.
There was always a place at his family’s dinner table, even if two or three or more were hanging around. His mother insisted on patching my torn jeans with the most colorful swatches she had. Through the family, we added another member to our loose coterie, a recent graduate of our college who had met the family through his electrician father who had wired their house.
One Christmas the girls in our gang suggested we each decorate a square of fabric in some appropriate fashion, which we did. Then the girls used the squares to create a quilt to present to our friend’s mother. It made up in love what it lacked in aesthetics. She treasured it.
Our gang enjoyed those times hanging out with our friend and his family. It was our home away from home, a house was filled with good conversation, music, and laughter. I believe that in our heart of hearts, we thought this was the ideal family, the kind of loving and accepting family and home we hoped to create someday.

We progressed through our college years. Soon, my friend’s younger sister began dating another classmate of ours. One afternoon the two of them were pedaling bikes on a country road near her house when a motorist struck and killed her boyfriend. Devastated, her life spiraled out of control. I might bump into her at a concert or music venue, out of it, unaware of where she was, abandoned by whomever she had come with. I would load her up and take her home.
Around this time, my friend’s father began an affair with a woman in his office which led to a divorce and more heartbreak.
In those pre-social media days, time, distance, careers, and families led us down different paths and we all lost touch except for sporadic and unexpected contact. I learned that my friend began a career in information technology and that he had lost his mother to cancer. Then I learned he was in a hospital in New Orleans, dying. Then he was gone.

All of these memories and more erupted into my mind unbidden, whole, intact, nearly palpable, and all in the blink of an eye, the space of a heartbeat. Music, that most abstract and evocative medium, was certainly the trigger, but it must have been more than that. How many times have I heard that song? Who knows? The driver’s seat of an SUV has little enough in common with a vinyl-covered booth in a campus grill, a parking lot with a college campus.
For whatever reason, it happened, revealing the arc of all those lives, rich in detail at times, frustratingly patchy in others, each joy and sorrow and loss acute and real.
It is a blessing that with each remembering, those people, those friends that shaped our lives so, are etched more deeply in our hearts and minds, where they can be clutched more dearly and treasured for the times that were precious, where all that happened can be pondered upon, searched again and again for answers and meaning.
All that and more because “Bell Bottom Blues” popped up on my iPhone, and I was suddenly 20-years-old and my friend strolled into the campus grill with a grin on his face.

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