A great example of what I mean is my first reaction to J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. I read the book that first time when I was around nine and while I loved it, my favorite moment was probably not the same as for other readers.
There is this wonderful chapter in the first book The Fellowship of the Rings called “The Bridge of Khazad-dum.” For those that don’t know or remember, this is the lowest point for the fellowship as they run to escape the dark of Moria, pursued by unspeakable evils. Yes, I worried about the heroes but really what made me sit up straight and take note was what Tolkien did in his writing and I had never seen anything like it before.
The orcs and goblins chasing our team were using drums but their drums were more than drums. They were speaking.
Doom, boom, doom, went the drums in the deep.
They are relentless, and obviously doing more than simply beating. They are screaming a warning, building to a crescendo over the course of the chapter until finally at the end Gandalf is lost and the drums then fade into the distance, leaving the fellowship and the readers all breathless.
But for me, I wasn’t breathless because of the action and the loss.
I wanted to know how Tolkien did that.
They were so much cooler, and when a girl became interested in one of them, it was almost as if they were lost to the rest of us hopeful and pitiful young men. Only to be spoken about again in hushed whispers of reverence, reaching a level hotter than we in the horn line could ever imagine. Who would have the guts to try and follow a boyfriend like that? Who would set themselves up for that level of disappointment? To have your dating technique compared to a drummer?
Yes, the drummers were cooler than the trumpets, the drum majors, and my saxophones. Every competition we went to it was assumed they would win, because… well… they always did. No one would dare give a trophy to another line. Most of the awards that lined our victory wall near the band room were for them than anyone else. And no one gives pats on the back for best line of saxophones (which we were).
Throughout high school I was in jazz band, and was usually first in the saxophones, so the solos would jump between me and the tenor player (I was on alto). Those solos began to give me some courage, and I remember the first time I truly had the pluck to speak to one of our drummers.
I was in a saxophone quartet and we were planning to perform at a local music festival. We actually got a good spot on the lineup on a good stage. It was obvious that the planners really had no idea that they were giving a solid hour to a bunch of sophomores when they heard our demo tape.
This meant something to me, it was a chance to do more than perform for parents and grandparents. We would be performing to people who would actually listen without the haze of parental love clouding the sounds. For them a squawk would be a squawk, not something cute. They would be an actual, honest-to-god audience and I wanted to wow them.
Which meant… the jazz quartet needed a drummer, and I was not going to go lightly down that road.
I went right to the leader of the drumline, the drummer for the jazz band, the quiet one that always seemed a foot taller and a million times more awesome than me, not to mention two years older. And to my shock when I asked him to perform with us he was flattered. He was seriously flattered!
Not only that he was into the idea, and we began rehearsing at his house. He even gave me and my fellow saxophones a ride to our practices.
After our performance at that festival, our cheeks flushed with success, a picture was taken of our little group. And in the shot, the drummer has his arm hanging over my shoulder with a smile.
I have really eclectic music taste. I love Belle & Sebastian, I have a Beatles collection that can take on any professional collector, I saw Ben Folds Five and Barenaked Ladies in concert this last summer (losing my voice singing along) and I have folders filled with jazz CDs. One of my go-to artists has always been Nat King Cole.
His voice is like comfort food for me. I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but listening to his music always makes me feel safe, like I am back at my grandparents’ house and I am young and nothing bad can happen to me there. To this day, when my wife is making Sunday dinner in the kitchen (her favorite meal to create each week), I’m usually playing with the kids and one of his CDs is on. And my mood will probably influence which of his albums or periods in his career I am playing. His early trio for the fun days, the more ballad work for the autumn-like days, for you always feel the seasons in Michigan. Quiet, peaceful, serene.
So recently on a Google search this CD came up that I had never heard of it and immediately it felt like a mistake to me. It had to be a collection from other CDs, one of those knock-off CDs you see all the time for deceased artists, pretending to be unique. Trying to steal our money from us. Usually for Nat they are bad audio copies of performances he has done on some random radio or television show.
But that was not this CD. No, this was legit- Nat King Cole Sings – George Shearing Plays. I actually have some of George Shearing’s albums too! It is almost embarrassing I didn’t know of this collaboration.
On Tuesday night, my wife was out and my kids were asleep. So after a quick dip onto Amazon the mp3s were downloaded.
The first song is entitled “September Song” by Kurt Weill and I had to sit down… not on a chair, but on the ground, up against the wall, not believing the song I was now hearing. It was like an old friend had come over to give me some new advice, something I should have known but probably forgot.
Oh, it’ a long long while
From May to December
But the days grow short
When you reach September.
That was me, I realized. Now that I was 40, I was starting September. The autumn leaves are just beginning to change, the air has the hint of winter, and like the song lyrics say the days are shorter, even though you still can feel the summer when the clouds disappear from time to time.
The song has almost a mumbling to the lyrics. There is no real chorus and the singer seems to accept his fate, but also finds focus through it. It is of course through love, declaring that he will spend his final days with the listener. As he explains (repeating it four different times as the song fades):
These precious days
I’ll spend with you.
I listened to that song five more times before my wife got home.
The fact is… after all this time I know that drums are just another instrument, they don’t make someone more exceptional or selected than me.
The fact is… Nat King Cole is just another lost singer, he is not a friend, or a messenger from beyond to help me find comfort and direction to my life. King was just a nickname, a title given to him that felt right.
And the fact is… Tolkien, while being a great writer, isn’t perfect (the wondering fox and Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings are both proof of that). In that chapter he was merely using onomatopoeia in a very sophisticated manner. A great little literary trick that I will go on to steal and use myself in different stories.
There is no magic or fate or destiny. No one is more special than another. We are all just trying to chase something. The trick I have found is that some of us know what that is; while others don’t know what is ahead of them, whatever that ring they are grasping for. And some have no desire to know or are simply too frightened to ask or stop and figure it out. Whatever the case, the chase is there, it is what gets us up in the morning and sends us to sleep tired in the night. Relentless like the drums. And it won’t end until the final breath is exhaled.
Frankly, there is just this- life and the courage to live it, to find what inspires you, what drives you, what stirs your passions. Then claim it. For me, it is my family, my books, my writing, and I will live everyday centered on them.
Forty is just a number.
If you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!
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