The bar in the basement of my parents’ house held all sizes and shapes of bottles; big ones in the back and tiny decorative ones along the side; whisky, gin, and vodka—serious stuff—as well as colorful concoctions like sloe gin and blackberry brandy. The men in my family all drank lots of beer, too. At parties and gatherings, it was carried into the house in cases. Nothing exotic there; mostly Stroh’s and Budweiser, if I remember right.
Once I got drunk on vodka and grapefruit juice in the basement of a girlfriend’s house when her parents were away. We spent the evening listening to records and drinking our vodka mixed with too little grapefruit juice out of paper cups. It was briefly exhilarating. Later, when I felt sick and dizzy and out of control, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Subsequently, I remained sober.
When the wind was red, like a summer wine
When the wind was red, like your lips on mine
It caressed my face and it tossed my hair
You were there.
I don’t recall ever seeing a bottle of wine in my parents’ house. John often brought wine, though, bottles of deep red wine made from grapes grown in Italy. He was Italian. The red wine John brought tasted of other, older worlds, of things mysterious and sophisticated and foreign. It also tasted of him and of this reckless, improbable, and hopeless love.
Does anyone even remember that song? I’d never heard it before I met John. I’d never heard of Chris Connor.
When the wind was green, at the start of spring
When the wind was green, like a lving thing
It was on my lips and its kiss was fair
You were there.
He gave me that scratchy old 78, and listening to it puts me right back inside my dark apartment in 1967. It’s 2 or 3 in the morning, after John has gone—after John has come with a bottle of red wine and this old music, and gone. If the few hours with John were the height of my week, the hours following his departure were the depth. I’d always leave his wine glass on the floor or table where he’d left it, at least until the next day. And I’d sit in the dark for a while and look around the apartment and out the window at the night sky in a kind of pained ecstasy or ecstatic pain, if you know what I mean.
Then came the fall and all of love came tumbling,
Like leaves that lost to frost and found they were
flying, crying, in a brown wind
My father knew a disc jockey, and he used to bring home dozens of used 45s. I grew up listening to The Mills Brothers, Patti Page, Theresa Brewer, Gogi Grant. The Gandy Dancers’ Ball was one childhood favorite. And I’ve never completely gotten There’s a Pawnshop on a Corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania out of my head. My brothers and I always watched the Hit Parade on TV on Saturday night after we took our baths. Snookey, Giselle, Dorothy, and Russell performing the top 10 tunes of the week.
And of course my girlfriends and I were glued to the TV every afternoon for “American Bandstand.” As soon as I had a disposable income of my own, I invested part of it in growing the collection of 45s, favoring Sam Cooke and Connie Francis.
In college, I listened to folk music and tooled around town in my 1966 Candy Apple Red Ford Mustang listening to a guy with a gravelly voice sing about The Eve of Destruction. What the heck did I know? There was other music around—Sinatra, Streisand, Nancy Wilson. A few of my friends listened to jazz and blues, but the music always seemed too ripe for them. Most of them hadn’t even started to live.
John was eight years older. When he played the blues, it sucked me right in. He filled my head with his recollections of sitting in smoke-filled clubs in downtown Detroit listening to all of these musicians. He brought me No Sun in Venice by the Modern Jazz Quartet. It took me 15 years to track down a copy of that album at Tower Records in San Francisco after I looked for it in record stores all over the country.
In turn, I introduced John to Simon and Garfunkel and The Moody Blues. He said 59th Street Bridge Song reminded him of me. “Feelin’ groovy?” Really? Was I like that? Or was that just how he preferred to see me? For that matter, was he the person I thought he was? Who can say?
The two of us spent so little time together, and being with him was so intense, that all the incidental elements—his cigarette smoke, the wine, and most of all the music—fused together. I couldn’t separate those things from him. He left a couple of his albums with me, the one by Chris Connor and another by Billie Holiday. They evoked such bittersweetness for years and years, long after the end of John and me.
But the winter’s come and we both should know
That the wind is white like the swelling snow
And we’ll never see all the wonderful things to be seen
When the wind is green.
I never drank enough of that Italian red wine to get drunk. I got drunk on John and his music instead. It was briefly exhilarating. Later, when I felt sick and dizzy and out of control, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Subsequently, I remained sober.