This is a long short story. At its core is the theme of salvation, which is the problem we all must deal with and the setup Pandoraa’s Box has left us. Hope springs. Even in the face of death and the chaos of emotion. Hope springs.
Don Lanphere played the saxophone. That is a simple statement but I cannot think of one truer. The saxophone was his voice but his voice had music in it, too. He’s playing jazz on the radio in Wenatchee, Washington. I’m maybe a teenager, but the radio has been my mind’s auditory window to the world for some time. I would pour through the portal of my Hallicrafter, riding the phasing of the AM waves. Don Lanphere had a radio show in Wenatchee and I would stumble into it looking for rock and roll or at least pop songs. Instead I found the world of modern jazz. Don had a quiet, intimate voice. He was telling you something that he really wanted you to hear but he was too polite to simply be a didactic. As I’m writing this I’m realizing that what I have are images of my relationship to the force that was Don Lanphere. Don Lanphere as filter. That’s what I really think he was. You could put yourself through him and learn more about yourself. Of course, that’s what teachers do. Don wasn’t simply a teacher, even when he was intentionally teaching. Like all great teachers he was learning from those he instructed. That is almost a cliché now but, like all great clichés it can be cleaned back to its bones of truth and they remain beyond the frequency of use. You can’t fuck up a Zen koan. Or a prayer.
Like many, I limped through my teenage years. If it weren’t for the illusion and promise of dreams we’d all have killed or seriously maimed ourselves in our youth. I tried as hard as I unintentionally could and came very close to succeeding in 1966. I had set my compass on the magnetic field of hipness and had been inexorably bent on and by music forever. Making it with a guitar had been a force within from the time I was a child. A force denied. The Cowboy, the Horse, and the Guitar were only second to the Cowboy, the Horse, and his Six-gun in the myth. Between the six-gun and the guitar the guitar had the most positive feedback of the two. A force denied, however, is a compressive resource to be used for good or ill. The Cowboy. The Guitar. The Horse. I was married, had a kid, a job as a delivery boy, and an overwhelming need to get off. Or at least out. I’d walked out of the Minneapolis folk music scene back into my old hometown of Wenatchee from a longing for a home that no longer existed. A pilgrim, I had an ache that was relentless and did not relieve itself until I picked up a guitar. I begged the first one. I played it until my fingers blistered and bled and I played through the pain until they eventually healed and calloused. Give me three chords and I’ll give you the first tier of the American songbook. Those three chords are what Archimedes dreamed of. If he’d only had a guitar.
The first guitar I owned came to me through love. Mary, my Magdalene Virgin, saw the look in my eyes when I showed her the guitar hanging on the music store wall. I can’t now imagine how I looked then. But she can. She took out the money she’d made packing cherries and humbled me profoundly as she allowed this gift to come into my hands. It seemed as though they had waited, outreaching, forever. And now the Horse. The motorcycle was a 1959 Triumph Bonneville 650. It was fast. It was not a car. The possibilities it held were epic and it was the steed of myth. I was way over my head. To say now that I was mentally or at least emotionally ill doesn’t do justice to anyone. I was twenty-two years old and Promethean as only a certain time in youth obtains upon us. Gestures successfully made then sculpt and pave the way and only with brittle force is the bond later broken, if ever.
I headed over Stevens Pass on my new steed at three on a Sunday afternoon. I’d never been more than twenty miles on a motorcycle prior, and that an antique 1952 Triumph that wasn’t even street legal. Too dumb to call for help. The scene accelerates, frames blurring. Darting in and out of traffic lines. Wrenching the thrill lever into a fixed place, breath-close to a honed edge that precluded further movement, or allowed it only at a fixed price. Tax included. I ran out of gas. I’m a mile away from Cole’s Corner. I look in the tank and it looks like sufficiency for the distance. I kick the engine, it starts and I roar into a u-turn only to have the bike die again in the middle of the highway. That’s when the Woman in the Buick pulled out to pass the six cars in front of her going slower than her toleration.
Now the film clarifies as the movements of the frames slow to almost freezing. Noh Theatre. An action repeated too often or not enough retains attention. I’m watching her heading directly for me. I am sideways to her as she slowly, in her own film now, contemplates the physics of veering. The first car is almost parallel to me. No where to run to, Baby, no where to hide. I watch her drive into my femur and feel a sound beyond frequency. I contemplate the tops of the trees and my motorcycle hurtling down the road ahead of me as I am airborne. Here is that edge. It is crushing me against the pavement. I am dead and this is the state foretold by the moksha, the mind medicine that reveals impermanence. I am not dead and this is the state of the Self crushing the Self. Oh, to be selfless, truly selfless. But no, it’s all coming back to me. The truth is I am only moments, surgical-steel-tipped arrow-like moments, away from the awesome gothic roar of my pain.
There were six cars the Woman in the Buick passed to get to me. The first car fled on down the road. The second car was driven by a doctor. A doctor with his medicine bag. It must be something inferred in recitation of the Hippocratic oath. He had his bag and in his bag was that most profound elixir of life and death: morphine.
I’ve looked back to see my two legs oppositional: one cowboy boot pointed down, one up. I am twisted. They’re afraid to move me. In their film they’re hearing the sound I’m making. There’s no burying it in the score. The doctor is there with his bag and with the morphine. He’s speaking to me but I’m embedded in the film and only get the drift which is that he’s at risk but I more so if he doesn’t give me a shot. He gives me the shot. He returns to the shadows beyond this intense light that is engulfing me. It is all the film of a dream. The van/ambulance is coming, it arrives and they slide me in like a loaf on a baker’s paddle and down the road we go. To Leavenworth. The law says that the first hospital you come to is the one that has to take you in. Not exactly like Frost’s – The Death of the Hired Hand – but close enough. They’ve got me. What first feels like an embrace will quickly become a web. They put me in traction, give me another shot and send me off to the ward. No money, no worry, Welfare will cover me.
I awake to the light in traction. Reality hums in dissonance. I wasn’t going anywhere before and I ain’t going there now, either. Not for some time. Some Time. I am at service to Time. It’s explained to me that my next six months are going to be here intractably in traction as my leg ever so slowly knits itself back together. Pearl one. Cheerfully, I must expose my guts to the raptors and allow for their return each day.
Baloney sandwichs and canned peaches. Want milk with that? And six shots of morphine a day. I’ll keep quiet. The other guys in the ward, both of them, are dying. They’re keeping quiet, too. These are the doldrums where no sail fills. Mary, my Magdalene Virgin, comes to see me but I am beyond her. I haven’t screamed yet. I have an infinite bruise to which I don’t dare give voice. The word is out. All over town. Wenatchee. Wena-he-che, the name of the River People who once called it theirs. No matter what you say it’s better to have them talk about you. One afternoon in the ever-present twilight of my current state of existence Don Lanphere walks in. Lester leaped. I don’t have much of this. I just have his presence and the spring of hope compressing. The days blur and he brings the Good Doctor, who has pieced him back together not so long ago, to my bedside. I’m getting out. So long frying pan, hello fire. Some time passes and the ambulance is here to take me out. AMA, in this case not the organization but the state of abeyance of one doctor’s orders for the abeyance of another’s, or your own. The web releases and I’m rolling down the river of dreams. It will be steel rods and the paste of my own bones and it will be time and it will be Time, but I’m a float for which the guitar must now become my paddle and the bits of released decompression will become the clay of songs.
Don Lanphere nodded out one night coming back from Yakima. High and tired and probably running from his life back to his life. Escape is the subtext of our existence. He crashed through a telephone pole into a coma, skull crushed, nearly every bone broken, organs mashed, and miles to go before he woke. Someone, maybe Jones the Painter, brought me to see him some time later. I don’t even know if I knew him but I know that I knew him. I think we recognize people we know even when we don’t know them. Explain it as you will. I am told that Don had been informed that, because of his crushed arm, he might never play the saxophone again. He had them bring him a trumpet so he could start learning the fingering. The sound of one hand. Dauntless. He, too, was pieced together by the Good Doctor and released to the struggle of his own humility. Maybe this is the beginning of the gift.
His father owned, Belmont’s, the main music store in town. Bob the Record Man had his shop there, as well, and that’s where you went to discover music. It was a place peopled with characters: Beanie, who’d give you the song and dance of high fidelity; Mickey, who was there to get your coin and had dreams of his own; and Don, who was suffering his time on parole from the world of jazz. You could ask questions there and often get answers that riddled you. Riddled with holes. Filling the holes is our real job in life. When we recognize the seamless we’re on the road to completion. I could go on, but I don’t know if I could go on and on.
Don Lanphere died the other day. I didn’t know he was sick until the local jazz show (one of them) mentioned a benefit for him at a club in town. I called Midge: Midge his wife, his mentor, his life, his everything. He didn’t go anywhere without her, even when he went somewhere without her. Like all great loves it was imperfect in its need for completion and depended upon novelty as its fuel, but it came to be the most imagined interdependence you could make of two people. It was accompanied by Don’s music and the movements of the world of jazz. Quite simply, they swung. Pendulums powerful, whether in or out of synch. They had both been often out of synch, with each other and themselves, but they had music and the demimonde of jazz as the magnet that held and pulled their social and spiritual isometric.
I am a child again in some strange way as Midge tells me Don has Hep C. He’s sold his horns six months ago to pay bills as he can no longer play, any way. He’s going, the sentence nearly over. He is safe now, held in the haven of Christ’s hands and fulfilled in the admonition to love. Numb is the word, but it’s the word unsaid. I must speak. The feeling provoked demands the idea reveal. Tell the ones you love of that love now. Now. You will tell them one way or the other forever. Let them hear it. Now.
The hard thing is to make the call again. I wait a couple days but I can’t stand it. Amazingly, Don answers the phone. It’s the voice on the radio and it’s the last time I will ever hear it. I am afraid of the embrace in which I know he’s being held. Can I come pay you a visit? Not right now. How are you doing, he asks? Me? How am I doing? How am I doing? He’s not kidding. He’s concerned. I tell him I love him. He tells me he loves me, too.
I decompress some of the clay hardened by time and pain and gently sculpt a poem and a letter. A love letter. On account. For all the possibilities. For pointing the direction of the path and holding out a balancing hand until I had a leg to stand on. For the friendship that was always there no matter how much time had expended in between. Forever. Midge calls, trembly, to say how much they both were moved by the words and all that lay within them.
He’s in the ICU and then he’s gone. I hear it on the morning news and the fabric starts to rip. As I drive off into the day I turn the car radio on and a beautiful tenor saxophone is pouring forth in intensity and brilliance. I’m thinking that it’s Don, in memoriam. It evolves into the slow dancing riffs of Witchi-ti-to gimmayra, gimmayra, hoh ronico, hoh ronico, hey ney noh wey. It is Pepper. Water spirit feelings dancing round my head make me glad that I’m not dead. Something terrible and beautiful convulses from me. It is palpable beyond the sobs. Jim Pepper is another lost saxophone voice in the darkness that forever calls. Another friend whose song is a jewel I keep in the vault of cherished things. This is the voice of the medicine. And the word shall set you free. Those things left unsaid must be spoken even if they cannot be. Buddha was left with a gesture that is referential for eternity as Jesus will forever have his cross. We will always have the problem of translating ourselves but the silence that speaks the greatest volumes is the most difficult language of all.
© 2006 Bicameral Songs