by James Taylor, from his “New Moon Shine,” Sony Music, 1991, and performed by him on most of his DVD releases.
I’ve assigned this deceptively simplistic song* to just before prom time. Mind you, I’m not sure exactly when that is, or was, because I never went to school dances. I was fat (I thought) and self-conscious, and I hung with what were called eggheads at the time (long before we were bald). One of those achievers was Barb Hanson, although she didn’t look the part, and didn’t actually “hang with” any group at school: she was a tall, dark-eyed blonde, a Nordic Modigliani, never mind that she called herself, incongruously but with quiet conviction, “Bison Barb,” in tribute to Bison Peak and her hippie-gal hobby of hiking in the Colorado Rockies. And in my senior year of high school, she was my girlfriend, – which is italics for mirabile dictu, which is Latin for I can’t believe it myself, man, and even forty-seven years later shake my bald head, wide-eyed.
April 23 is also the day the world celebrates Shakespeare’s birth and memorializes his death. And it was around that time of year, in 1969, that Barb and I went to see Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
It was the spring of everything for us, a sort of rebirth into adulthood as a “new life,” when you’re still naïve enough to see it as all sunlit vistas. Barb was off to Stanford in the fall, I in the opposite direction to Grinnell in Iowa hog country (see May 16 – Day 138 – “Bicycle Tune”). This velveteen, apparently gentle, modest girl already had shredded my heart and several other vital organs (although I tried not to show it) by insisting that she wanted “to be free to explore new relationships” in California. But something about the film (okay, I don’t need to tell you what it was about the film) impelled her to ardent commitment for at least that evening, and I am not saying we were “intimate.” In those days, THAT was mostly for the kids nobody called eggheads. Still, she had never kissed me like this before. Typically, I suppose, I still attribute it more to the film than to myself. But I naturally felt joyful, tearfully grateful, unworthy, disbelieving, and hopeless all at once. That, I suppose, is what “ecstasy” means. And it wasn’t just hormones rising with the sap. I loved Barb Hanson.
“Copperline” is all about this Nostalgia, with a capital N (as filtered through Taylor’s boyhood in North Carolina), but my particular interest here is that lovely second bridge: “The first kiss ever I took / Stole a page from a romance book. / The sky opened and the earth shook / Down on Copperline. / I took a fall from a windy height, / I only knew how to hold on tight, / And pray for love enough to last all night.” It wasn’t “the first kiss ever I took,” but it was certainly the first really memorable one, the softest, poutiest lips, and did I say she was a great kisser? Also, my God, I’ve never inhaled a more fragrant woman. What I wouldn’t give to identify that bouquet.
Yes, I was stuporously in love with Bison Barb, and maybe for that night the feeling was mutual. It was the lusty Philip Rothian days of the “blonde shiksa,” but for me Barb was a Guinevere who didn’t need rescuing. She was saving me – from loneliness, adolescent self-loathing, panic at the threshold of manhood …
But of course it wasn’t me she was saving: a few months later she didn’t so much “dump” me as turn her back and slough me off, a casual cruelty that shocked as much as it hurt. It turned out that this was an average teenaged girl awakening, as average teenaged girls will do, to the power of her biology; which is to say that this was not the Barb Hanson I had idealized.
As for the song, beyond that bridge, the words are mostly shards of private memory, given depth and coherence by time – commotion recollected in tranquility, to riff off Wordsworth. It invites us, like a Rorschach test, to project our own nostalgia onto a dreamy soundtrack, swaying back and forth hypnotically between the tonic past and subdominant present (always moving), emphasizing the C# there that bridges those chords via (sure enough) the “suspended” fourth A (EG#B – AC#E – EG#B…): brilliantly (although probably unintentionally), the chord structure mimics the past-present vacillation-suspension bridge of the lyrics, rocking us lullaby-style, swaddling us in the joyful melancholy that is the remembrance of pleasant times. Shakespeare was good at this, of course, as with his “darling buds of May” whose “lease hath all too short a date.” So, hail, muse, forever young Bison Barb of my springtime mind’s eye:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, …
That’s where I’ve “tried to go back as if I could / All spec house and plywood / Tore up, tore up good /” (as Taylor puts it), and I’ll probably stay tore up for a day or two, all these years later, having gone back there on the strength of a bridge in a song set in a faraway state. By the time you understand you’ve made these romantic mistakes, it’s too late.
*Which again graphically demonstrates that a great “tune” is more than the sum of its parts, lyrics, melody, and performance (see July 22 – Day 204 – “The Heart of Saturday Night”) – a fact that does not seem to have occurred to the Nobel literature committee in its recent award to Bob Dylan.