Jeebus, all these decades I’ve been thinking the chorus was
|Big old jet had a light on
Don’t carry me too far away
Oh oh oh big old jet had a light on
‘Cuz it’s here that I’ve got to stay.
Turns out “had a light on” is “airliner”. Well, duh. Of course. That’s the freaking title. But phonetically, Steve is singing “biggo jed adda line oh”. I say this with confidence because I just replayed it about ten times to make sure. That’s the audible, as they say in football.
Who knows what the hell Steve’s saying, anyway? Well, some of us do, and to explain, we have the Internet. For example, The Joker begins,
|Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me maurice
Cause I speak of the pompitous of love
|Speculation about “pompatus” was a recurring motif in the script for The Pompatus of Love. While the movie was in postproduction Cryer heard about “The Letter.” During a TV interview he said that the song had been written and sung by a member of the Medallions named Vernon Green. Green, still very much alive, was dozing in front of the tube when the mention of his name caught his attention. He immediately contacted Cryer.|
|Green had never heard “The Joker.” Cryer says that when he played it for Green “he laughed his ass off.” Green’s story:|
|“You have to remember, I was a very lonely guy at the time. I was only 14 years old, I had just run away from home, and I walked with crutches,” Green told Cryer. He scraped by singing songs on the streets of Watts.|
|One song was “The Letter,” Green’s attempt to conjure up his dream woman. The mystery words, J.K. ascertained after talking with Green, were “puppetutes” and “pizmotality.” (Green wasn’t much for writing things down, so the spellings are approximate.)|
|“Pizmotality described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved,” Green told Cryer. And puppetutes? “A term I coined to mean a secret paper-doll fantasy figure [thus puppet], who would be my everything and bear my children.” Not real PC, but look, it was 1954.|
Anyway, I’ve had a bad cold the last few days, and right now I’m sitting on the couch with a fever, trying to think and write while a vacuum cleaner roars in the next room. But now I’ve also got these Etymotic ER6i earphones jacked deep into my head, muting the noise and substituting ol’ Steve, singing about getting on “that 707” — a plane nobody outside of Iran still flies. And it’s getting me high, just from the driving energy of the song.
Beats thinking about death, which comes easy when you’re 61 with a fever, a gut, and a history of exercise that consists mostly of getting dressed. But music helps. Music is the best evidence of immortality that we have.
Music is life. And vice versa. Listening to three-decade old Steve Miller on good earphones is life transfusion.
So is listening to an even older song: The Doors’ When the Music’s Over, from Strange Days, a brilliant, beautiful piece of work. To me Strange Days ranks among a handful of perfect albums, first song to last.
Which is When the Music’s Over, of course.
|When the music is your special friend,
dance on fire as it intends.
Music is your only friend,
until the end.
Strange Days came out in late ’67. I bought it in the summer of ’68 after Ken Rathyen, a guy on my ice cream route (he was a lifeguard at PV Beach in Pompton Plains, NJ) told me to get it. “Every song is a gem,” he said. He was right. (Kenny, if you’re out there, Yo!)
That fall I shared an apartment in an old house on Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, near Tate Street. Next door was a big Victorian, already boarded up. On Halloween night, a bunch of turned off all the lights and listened to Strange Days. After When the Music’s Over was over, we were deep in a creepy Halloween mood, and decided it would be fun to break into the “haunted house” next door. So we got a flashlight out, sneaked over, and found a way in.
There was no furniture, just empty rooms, with a coating of dust on everything… except for the footprints on the stairs. They were barefoot and small for an adult. We followed them up to the second floor, where they stopped. No other footprints went down.
Feeling creeped out, we pressed on, exploring this big old house. Still, other than the footprints, there was nothing.
Then we found the door to the attic. It was narrow, and opened to a narrow staircase. At the top was a camped room where there were a few items of furniture and some boxes. In one box was a diary by a girl who had lived there. She reported daily on what she saw out the window at the front of the attic, looking down on Spring Garden Street. She also gave weekly summaries of her favorite TV show, Whirlybirds, which last ran in 1960.
One name that appeared often in the diary was Jan Speas, who lived next door. I wondered if this was the same Jan Speas who taught creative writing at Guilford College, where I was a Senior at the time. (Jan, whose maiden name was Jan Cox and wrote as Jan Cox Speas, was best known as a writer of historical romances. More here.)
So we took the diary with us, and I brought it to Jan. Yes, Jan said, she remembered the girl well. They were good friends, and the diary was touching because the girl had later died.
Three years later Jan died too, of an unexpected heart attack. She was 46.
In August, 2004, Ed Cone‘s Piedmont Bloggers Conference was held in the same exact spot as the condemned houses: the one I lived in, the haunted Victorian next door, and Jan Speas’ house on the other side of that one. I wrote about it here, and told the same creepy story here (but it doesn’t come up now, which is why I’m repeating myself).
But I’m still here. Dancing on fire. And getting back to real work, now that the vacuum cleaner is off.