At the moment during Holy Week when Jesus redefined
two common objects from the dinner table,
we were cracking open fortunes at a Chinese restaurant down the street,
your daughter and her friend on the manic side of mid-teen life,
full of laughter and the secret language of confidantes,
while we three elders—you, me, the friend’s mother—absent-
mindedly twirled Asian aphorisms around arthritic fingers.
None of the fortunes spoke of nails.
When on that evening Jesus gathered up his befuddled eleven
for a stroll through the streets of the old city to the eastern gate,
seeking the road to the foot of Olivet, the path to that famous garden,
we were sorting out whose house the girls might sleep over,
there being no chance they should face this night alone.
The mother of the friend pushed hard
to bring them to her home, saying she
hadn’t seen her daughter all week, though you
could say the same. It was the hour for finding solace
in whatever remnants of family could be arranged.
When he brought them to Gethsemane to support him as he prayed,
at that dark hour you’d already released her, and you and I
returned home to talk about your difficult week at work
and keep watch with each other through the night.
At about the hour the crowd entered the Garden, carrying swords and torches,
your son, so soon college-bound, suddenly arrived
in the full array of high school fashion,
mumbling sidekick in tow, here to pick up something and be off. Tomorrow
he and his girlfriend board a train to Boston to check out schools,
returning sometime Sunday. You pressed for more details: when Sunday?
You know it’s Easter, you reminded him.
But he wasn’t thinking of Easter tonight, nor did the disciples
who ran up the dark slopes in selfish fear, abandoning their messiah.
At least your son did not betray you with a kiss, nor did he run away naked,
like the mysterious young man in Mark’s Gospel.
It was a workday; the weather uncertain.
You had a meeting; I had inspections to make.
In Jerusalem that day, Jesus endured a whirlwind of trials,
before the Sanhedrin, before Herod, before Pilate.
Passover was coming at sundown. That was the deadline.
I’d stopped at the hardware store, running an errand,
and had my hands in a drawer full of nails
when I realized with a shudder it was the hour
the nails were pounded into his flesh.
I threw my silver coins on the counter and hastily withdrew.
The skies darkened but no curtain I know of
was torn today. I found it difficult to pray
with that paper bag of nails on the backseat of my car.
My son’s gone to his mother’s in Virginia; my daughter
drives down here from Syracuse later today
to go with me to church in the morning. This is a day of waiting.
I have taxes to do, and straightening up around the house.
The body was brought to the tomb and left there,
vague prophecies not clearly understood. You prefer
the Easter Vigil service, you tell me on the phone,
but I’m expecting my daughter at that hour. We can’t agree
on the details. You have things to do, too, you say.
It’s best to keep busy when you’re waiting.
I’m not a morning person. Let the other disciples get up early.
But I don’t dispute the resurrection, or the account of the women
who ran back from the place where the body had been taken.
If it were a fiction of the time, a more convincing narrative
would feature the men making the crucial discovery.
But the story’s subsidiary details strike me as authentic. I have my hands
on the knot of my tie, ignoring the clock
for a second, until my daughter calls up to me.
The church will be more crowded than was that garden at that hour.
You and your daughter have made other plans. We’ll try for lunch later.
The miracle prompting the occasion remains embedded in my soul,
but whatever prayers it may inspire will have to be postponed.
© 2013 Al Hudgins
When the Showtime series Billions premiered its second season opener earlier this year, the first music heard (on a show that prides itself on its insider trendiness) was Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” a 46-year-old track from his seventh and most commercially successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson. I imagine most viewers had no idea how old this music was or that the man who’d written and performed it had been dead nearly a quarter-century. But I knew this piece from its opening heartbeat and bass riff, and I realized how much I wanted to hear the album again.
A few weeks later, facing a seven-hour drive south to my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, I brought along some CDs, including this one. Since I was traveling solo, I could crank it up as loud as it deserved. How quickly the miles slipped by!
The progression of ten songs (seven of which Nilsson wrote) presents the events and moods of a day chronologically, starting with the ebullient Gotta Get Up, a wakeup call I’ve always wanted to wire into my alarm clock. Just piano at first, banging its insistence into a groggy subconscious, then backed by bass and a vocal that provides context. The singer’s waking up somewhere other than home, telling himself to get up and get back before the morning comes…before the sun comes up. The demands of the day urging him on, he offers a quick goodbye: Got a big day, sorry, can’t stay—I gotta run, run, yeah, gotta get home, pick up the phone, gotta let the people know I’m gonna be late. By now horns and an accordion have joined in, and when we hit the bridge, things take a wistful turn and the lyrics speak of how much harder it is now to stay out late than it used to be (we never thought we’d get older, we never thought we’d grow cold). When the bridge comes around again, it tells the story of a sailor and a seaside girl that’s sweet in its nostalgia but succinct in its details, as much in a hurry as everything else in this song.
The first track fades out under the start of the second track, Driving Along, guitar, bass, and drums setting an agreeable pace as a car door shuts and an engine is turned over a few times. His car seems as worn out as he is…eventually starting, sending him off into the traffic with everyone else. He muses about the lives of the people in the other cars, how isolated they are and how stressed (faces so tired of facing each other), but at the bridge, his mood shifts and he’s tripping now (driving along at fifty-seven thousand miles an hour, look at those people standing on the petals of a flower) and before you know it, he’s doing Beatlesque harmonies and an arrangement straight out of Sgt. Pepper. This is, my friends, how all commutes should go.
As before, the next song overlaps slightly, a lightly-played organ rising up from the fade-out. The lyrics of this third track, Early One Morning, delve a little deeper into what went wrong the night before, how desperately he’d like to fix things, and how haggard he’s looking (Harry, you sure look beat, says the waitress serving him breakfast). In contrast to him singing, over and over, I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues, the organ chords are in a major key and relentlessly persist to the end. These contradictions work, providing a kind of threadbare hope.
Track Four, The Moonbeam Song, is the sweetest tribute to rubble and ruin you’ll ever hear, and once again the mood is captured perfectly in the lyrics Nilsson croons and its languid, mesmerizing arrangement. The haunting mellotron that ends the piece hearkens back once again to the psychedelic euphoria of Sgt. Pepper, released only four years before, which seems both present and past.
Introspection done, the album moves into resolve. A boogie piano starts Down (Track Five), punched up by drums from Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos) and Nilsson’s wailing instructions:
Well, you gotta have soul to wash your sins away,
& you gotta have hope—it’s the price you gotta pay,
& you gotta give love, or your love will walk away,
& you gotta stay loose—it’s the only way to stay.
Down, you got me goin’
Goin’ round, you got me goin’
Down, d-d-down, d-d-down.
By now, the horns, Klaus Voorman’s bass, and reverb on the vocal have kicked in, and the song revels in its swagger, its assurance, and also a kind of whimsy woven into the mix. By the end of the track, something in the lively mix almost suggests a crowd has gathered, an audience of all those people from the morning commute now gathered in one place, trying to do the best they can.
Opening Side 2 of the vinyl record is the biggest of the album’s three hit singles: Without You, which reached #1 on two Billboard charts: Pop Single & Adult Contemporary. Penned by a couple of members from the British group Badfinger, the song begins with solo piano (played by Gary Wright, four years before he released Dream Weaver) and a heartbreaking vocal that Richard Perry, the album’s producer, claims was done in a single take. Nilsson, a tenor with a three-and-a-half-octave range, performs perfectly here, every note richly nuanced with pain, regret, and longing. The song won the 1973 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal, an award it richly deserves.
What do you do when you’ve lost the love of your life? The next two songs offer options. Here’s the prescription provided by Coconut, a playful calypso number:
Brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime;
His sister had another one, she paid it for de lime.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put the lime in de coconut, she called the doctor,
woke him up & said, “Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take,
I said, Doctor, to relieve this bellyache?”
At Perry’s suggestion, Nilsson sings all four characters in this tale: the narrator, the brother, the sister, and the doctor, and his vocal dexterity is remarkable, but what really wows the writer in me are Nilsson’s lyrics—how spare they are and yet how complete (Nilsson was #62 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time,” a list released in 2015). “Coconut” went to #8 on the Billboard Pop Single chart in 1972. Once you’ve heard it, you never forget it.
The other option? Let the Good Times Roll, recorded by Shirley and Lee in 1956 (they also wrote it). In Nilsson’s version, the carefree abandon in his vocal, especially as the song goes on, is a perfect antidote to all the heartache in the earlier tracks. His nonchalant harmonica solo underscores that attitude, and the multi-track vocals that end it are a fitting sendoff.
But the party is interrupted by that percussive heartbeat triggering the all-out rock of Jump Into the Fire, another Nilsson original and the album’s third hit single in as many styles. No matter what feats you accomplish, he sings, you’ll never be free. Great band on this one, including a hypnotic Jim Gordon drum solo that recalls Ringo Starr on The Beatles’ The End or Ron Bushy on Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, my holy trinity of classic rock drum solos, actually. Herbie Flowers’ bass joins in and works an inspired solo of his own, and then the guitars return: John Uribe (lead), Chris Spedding and Klaus Voorman (rhythm). On piano, Nilsson handles electric, Jim Webb acoustic. Nearly seven minutes of pure energy, this one.
The day is done at last with Track Ten: I’ll Never Leave You. Some nights, I go to sleep without you, he sings over a solo piano and the slightest touch of a triangle (by which I mean the percussion instrument, but a romantic triangle would also work here, a subtlety in arrangement not beyond Nilsson’s powers). It’s a plaintive cri de coeur from a moment of longing in the dark night, and as the song nears its three-minute mark, the singer’s voice is multiplied and echoed as he repeats I’ll never leave you alone, almost as if he means to haunt her soul. It’s been a long day, and, in the end, she is all that matters.
In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.
There is a cathedral
those soaring columns,
sturdy enough to shoulder heaven,
raise high a vault
of evergreen thatch
to shade this unexpected sanctuary
the trail reverently enters.
I hear the undertones of evensong
when the wind stirs the highest boughs,
dropping tiny cones at my feet,
like so many mustard seeds,
the ground swept clear of weeds
by fallen needles woven together like prayers.
The impenitent glare of the sun
has been politely ushered out
and everything that echoes inside me
is suddenly hushed,
as if a service
were about to start
or the voice of silence
about to speak.
© 2006 Al Hudgins
In France, it’s just an ordinary name:
. it means “red mill,”
. a place to bring your grain;
. back then, the massive millstone’s rumble
. thundered to the rafters,
kicking up a storm of dust that plastered
sweaty skin with shards of grain and dimmed
. the lamplight’s shine
. and made the shadows spin.
. Back then, a different bump and grind
. brought patrons there:
a meal inviting them to taste, not stare.
Now, faster than it takes the feminine
. farine to rise
. into the masculine—le pain—
. lithe dancers swirl before our eyes.
. These graceful nudes
bake up a more exhilarating food.
© 2008 Al Hudgins