Ninth Letter is pleased to be able to feature “Miser’s Farthings,” a long form essay by Patrick Madden that we’ll be serializing in three parts.
Madden’s essay is obsessed–in the best way–with lost moments and time that cannot be reclaimed–and who among us has not stewed in a car seat during rush hour? Madden first notices life’s process of subtraction in an elevator ride that doesn’t go as smoothly as he’d like, leading him to count the seconds with a stopwatch in another elevator ride. But such concentration inevitably leads to unbidden memory, and off his essay then goes, into the byways of lost time worth saving. What is the value of all this time, these little rescued moments, and how does the literary form of the essay help us to approach them? Read on, and Patrick Madden will show you the way.
Miser’s Farthings (part 2)
How much time and effort our species has spent trying to freeze time, revisit and reimagine the past, translate it into other, more durable forms. We tell stories, we draw pictures, we write letters and essays and books. We snap photographs, film videos, record speeches and songs. We want to share our lives with others, including our future selves. We want to leave a trace. We want to matter. Our feelings reach out beyond us.
I, as one specimen of homo sapiens, inhabit the early twenty-first century, a time of immense technological good fortune (I hear the pre-echoes of the future’s laughter: “You have no idea what technologies await!”). For me, the most salient method for holding the past is sound recording, particularly produced music, not live events, but songs put together piecemeal by layering controlled performances into a new thing that never was, that never existed as such until it was engineered. Thus, the song on the record becomes sui generis (though it be reproduced thousands of times, pressed into vinyl, magnetized into tape, coded into a disc or an ethereal file), a kind of melding of parts into the ideal representative example. But each note was at some point performed, and I get caught up in the notion of hearing, now, sometimes decades after that one perfect take in the recording booth, replicated vibrations that transport my imagination to the moment of their creation. Especially because vocal tracks are so utterly human, I allow myself to be convinced that with each listen I am reconstituting some vanished conjunction of time and space and human performance and electronic sensors scribing on magnetic tape, the briefly crossed paths of lungs and tongue, shaped exhalations made sensible through language and melody. I can’t help but move my thinking beyond the waves of sound created by a needle-in-groove and think of them as created by another human being. And in the ever-more-common case of a singer who’s passed on, I sometimes believe I am resurrecting a soul from oblivion.
You could say this about almost any song recorded after the mid-twentieth century, and some of this you could say about any extant sound recording (some of them egregiously bad, unlistenable), but as my example, I want to talk about John Lennon’s penitent “Jealous Guy.”
Having been raised singing Beatles songs in the family room with my father, I’m predisposed to like Lennon’s solo work, but “Jealous Guy” isn’t quite a favorite. I much prefer “Nobody Told Me” or “Watching the Wheels” or any number of his straightforward rock songs. So I’m not entirely sure why I’m drawn to it as epitomal of the kind of song that generates that spooky feeling in me. A few thoughts come to mind, though: 1) Lennon was assassinated at age forty, my age now. I remember hearing the news of his death quite clearly. Though I was sad at the time, I was also irreverent. At my friend Vin’s kitchen table, I drew a cartoon of John crying out “I’m shooted!” This drew a lot of laughs. Though I was only nine at the time, I still feel bad about doing that. 2) I have seen filmed footage of Lennon in the recording studio singing, as far as I can tell, the actual vocal part that Phil Spector kept for the final version of the song. Seeing him with his eyes closed behind those yellow-tinged granny glasses, his hands his earphones, his head bobbing in and out, toward and away from the microphone to match his engagement, lilting up and down to match the notes’ rising and falling, I can feel more fully the emotion of the lyrics even as I hear the small waverings and imperfections in his voice, so that, no, they’re not imperfections, they’re improvements, marks of their creator’s presence. 3) I love to sing along with Beatles (and former Beatles’) songs, but Paul McCartney sometimes hits notes just out of my vocal range. Aside from the throat-shredding one-take “Twist and Shout,” Lennon’s voice always stays where I can reach it, so I especially appreciate him. 4) But in “Jealous Guy,” he also whistles–a plaintive touch I think–
hitting notes I cannot match no matter how tightly I purse. This amuses and confounds me, both. 5) Though the timing is all wrong, I cannot help thinking of this song’s lyrical message (“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry that I made you cry,” etc.) as a response to his rocky relationship with Yoko Ono, from whom he split in 1972, after cheating on her. His fourteen-month bender in Los Angeles convinced him to beg her to take him back, which she did. And though I have a typical slight-dislike of Yoko, I’m glad she did. 6) I know, nonetheless, that the music was written in 1968 after an inspiring lecture by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and as “Child of Nature” (different lyrics) it was in the mix of potential songs for the White Album. 7) And that Paul McCartney once said that the song was about him, that John’s jealousy was sparked by “everyone [getting] on the McCartney bandwagon,” and the song was his apology to his friend. 8) Of course, one can’t help hoping that John was also apologizing to Cynthia, whom he treated so poorly so often. 9) And/or to Julian. 10) And, of course, one important reason the song is so resonant, even forty years later, is that it speaks for so many of us, at least in part. Forget Yoko, Paul, Cynthia, Julian: this song expresses something universal. Sometimes it is me singing my regrets to Karina, to my children, to my friends.
I’m not sure all of those facts and speculations are relevant to my reasons for returning so often to the song-as-resurrected-moment, but the fact is I do. When I hear it (the whistle especially), I both see and hear something beyond remnants or evidence. I think this was once an event, and is now again an event, of a different sort. I think here are four minutes from May 24, 1971, at Tittenhurst, west of London. I think there once was a man named John Lennon who changed the world with his music; he is now gone, but here he remains alive. I grow a bit sad at the loss, but also confused. I open my mind to the incomprehensible motivations of some of my fellow beings. I cannot follow the twisted course of logic that brought Mark Chapman to think of himself as Catcher in the Rye (I have felt the pull of that book, too), to fantasize beyond record burnings when Lennon claimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ, to rail against the hypocrisy of singing “no possessions” while maintaining so many, to want so badly to link his name and destiny to the great Beatle. In that briefest of moments on December 8, 1980, at the Dakota Building off Central Park in Manhattan, the paths of musician and murderer crossed inextricably, to far more devastating and permanent effect than any of Lennon’s previous encounters with others, or even with Chapman himself. Earlier that day, John had graciously signed the cover of Double Fantasy for a then-placid Chapman. Paul Goresh was on hand to capture the scene’s split-second of reflected light.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
–John Lennon “Beautiful Boy”
He’s gone, and that’s why I hold so tenaciously to the idea of all those recorded moments, all the photographs, films, music. But not just for John, for all of us, even those who’re still here, counting out the moments. It is, in part, why I write.
There’s a part of me that sympathizes with Zeno, who thought himself into the quandary about whether anything can happen at all. Such are the porous boundaries between moments and the limits to possibility when one action is chosen over another. This manifests itself sometimes in my paralysis confronting tasks, especially around the home (and perhaps it explains my sympathy for Edward Thomas, the indecisive friend who inspired Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Traveled”). Thus several sprinklers remain broken, leaving large swaths of the lawn brown and dying. Thus the weeds in the garden grow more vibrantly than the tomatoes and the peppers. Thus our framed pictures, which would make a nice and welcoming addition to the upstairs hallway, remain unhung years after we moved into this house. Thus the hole I accidentally knocked in the drywall on the stairs remains only partially repaired, a gaping temptation for my children, who already filled it with toys, clothing, and diapers (unused, thankfully) once before. It’s partly why I’m sitting here typing while so much needs to be done today (a Saturday, when we’re expecting friends to visit).
And even though recorded music is almost never the “record” of any single event, but a cobbling-together of various performances, maybe so much of what we perceive as a unity was never a unity until it was brought together by an engineer, or a perceiving consciousness. So what is “Jealous Guy” if what we hear never quite happened? I begin to conceive of the song (or all songs, all events) as a probability, one result of many, a new happening each time it’s listened to, created and existing in the perception of a listener, each agent effecting the reality of the thing we call “Jealous Guy.”
So I remember those lazy afternoons when I was young when my father pulled out his Beatles records and placed them on the turntable so we could listen together and sing along. Those, too, were events, singular and sacred, the meeting of lives across distance and time. We added our voices to the waves reverberating and slackening, interfering and deadening, ripples of temporary vibrations converted–before they fell silent–into electric impulses in my brain and stored as memories.
Patrick Madden is the author of Quotidiana (Nebraska, 2010). His personal and travel essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, Portland Magazine, River Teeth, and other journals, as well as in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He teaches creative nonfiction at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.