I've been sleeping on a lumpy sofa for several days, and my back is on fire.
The sofa isn't in my own house, a take-no-prisoners zone I return to only to collect fresh clothes, but in the house of elderly friends kind enough to shelter me. It's 1967, I'm 22, I've lived in Philadelphia all my days and graduated from a local college where I lost a year because of a rheumatic illness that put me in the hospital for months, left me slow and gimpy, and made my lower back a kiln that fires up when I sleep on that sofa.
For months, life's details, every one, have felt intractable or inscrutable. To get by, I work a series of classy jobs: insurance company file clerk; mail sorter at Oscar Meyer Weiner, Inc.; bookstore cashier. My safe house is here, in my friends' high-ceilinged, airy rooms scented with bayberry candles and fresh-cut lilacs in a hamlet outside town with the winning Welsh name of Gwynnyd Valley. But then, I'm also in love, more or less, with the two daughters of the house, and they with me. Somehow we manage assignations at different times, sometimes on the same day, with no one any the wiser, we think.
One kind of mental breakdown is caused by the impacting of the minutest details of everyday life into, it seems, each separate instant. It's not overload, exactly, so much as a feeling that the body, already too head-heavy, is filling with concrete that while it begins to set also begins to crack from amassed internal pressure. The heaviest concentration and most groaning crack is the lower lumbar pain that keeps me awake most nights on the sofa, across from which is a window that lets in silky evening breezes and, on an oak table before the window, a hi-fi set. One night, I play a record I've just acquired and have, as they say, a moment.
It's now 2005, and the vinyl beauty I spun that night, along with all my other sides, got sold off several months later with practically everything else I owned -- clothes, books, turntable, speakers, and a beloved Webcor reel-to-reel tape deck -- so that I could launch myself from Philadelphia to land's end in San Francisco. I now own the CD version of that album and listen to it every so often, not to remind myself of that other time of my life (though of course it does that), but to set free a mysterious force that cuts right through me with a pleasure threaded with vague menace.
The opening bars of Sketches of Spain, one of the three albums Gil Evans arranged for Miles Davis backed by a large ensemble, punch me into a peculiarly heightened wakefulness. (The track is a reworking of Joaquin Rodrigo's composition for guitar and orchestra, Concierto de Aranjuez.) Nothing on the other two Evans-Davis collaborations have quite this effect, not the lush grievousness of Porgy and Bess or the sky-clearing arousals of Miles Ahead, my personal favorite. The Evans-Davis Concierto begins with faint castanet cricketing. Then the silence softly cracks open with a whistle of flute and brass brilliantined with wariness, a slightly dissonant reedy reveille of consciousness, a call. It's bold, but it trembles. It has a Romantic rawness; its ringing tones are the bayberry, the lumpiness, and the sisters' very different fragrances; it also carries a piercing sensation of life's beautiful unforgiving totality. Other choice passages throughout the recording have the same effect. They bite into my bones a bereaved cry. But what, exactly, has been lost?