Starting from the premise that art is, at its most fundamental level, about communication, then the artistic endeavors that leave the biggest imprint on us are the ones that really speak to some part of us that might otherwise be lost in the minutiae of our day to day existence. When I think of the times that some creative work has hit me in that way, the common element is the feeling of some sort of connection (to the music, book, show, movie) that has stayed with me for years. Regardless of the medium there has always been a point during the experience where all the components of my surroundings welded to the art itself in my memory, and have been part of its recall ever since.
My earliest recollection of this type is musical. In late July, 1967 (just days after my fourth birthday) Ode to Billie Joe was released as a single. I was playing in the basement of my parents house in Brooklyn hoping to escape the heat. Air conditioning, it was explained to me, was for rich people. Lying on the cool tile floor doing the best I could to entertain myself, I remember hearing the guitar strum through the open windows. Quiet and mysterious, the song made me stop what I was doing and just listen. That sort of singular attention was not a typical part of my repertoire, but there was something utterly captivating about the tension in the lyrics and dark path the music took. When it was over I wanted to hear it again immediately. That’s not an uncommon reaction to an ear worm like that but for me there was more. I believed I could figure out exactly what it was that the narrator and Billie Joe dropped off the Tallahatchie bridge if only I could hear the song again. The promise this held was enormous. Ode to Billie Joe was a big kid song, and being able to solve the case would be my chance to earn a spot in their world. Fifty years later I have a pretty good understanding of what the songwriter was probably referring to (aborted child) but whenever I hear it there’s still some part of me that wants to know for sure. I have a life long love of music and have had countless other listening experiences that have landed on me in many, powerful ways. Nothing has ever haunted me quite like Ode to Billie Joe.
When thinking of a similar moment from my (too) many hours in front of a television, the choice was an easy one. I was a huge Hill Street Blues fan as a teenager, and young man. The show broke ground, both in terms of content and style on a weekly basis. Large ensemble cast, mobile camera, a drama that used humor; much of what people enjoy so much about hour long, episodic dramatic programming got its start with that show. Not having any recording device my viewing commitment was total. When Hill Street Blues was on I wasn’t going anywhere. Their willingness to break with TV tradition was best demonstrated late in the shows run; season six out of seven. Without any build up or warning one of the more popular characters was killed. No slow wasting disease, no ominous foreshadowing. Joe Coffey was buying some cigars for a poker game and got shot. Just like that. On screen. So fast it took a moment to realize he was gone. It was the first time I had ever seen anything like that. The loss felt real. In the fullest sense of the word, my night was disrupted. I could think of nothing else for the remainder of my waking hours. Nothing in my viewing history had hit me quite like that. The empty feeling I was left with is the best quick and dirty description I can think of for the disconnecting effect of a the sudden departure of someone who plays a genuine if not central role in your life.
Finding an experience with the printed word that has had this kind of effect on me was easier than I would have thought. Since my first exposure I have been a dedicated fan of Stephen King. With out hesitation I identify him as my favorite storyteller, my only “must read” in the realm of fiction. So captivating is his technique that I’ve even managed to enjoy reading most of the books of his that I don’t think are particularly good. With all that as the given it might seem that selecting one passage from one individual piece of work would be a challenge. Not the case. When I think of which book of his has had the deepest emotional impact on me it’s no contest. IT, while being a legitimate page turner of horror story, is at its core a thoughtful meditation on the way our childhood usually stays with us far longer than the people who inhabited it do. I still remember finishing the book and being more than a bit surprised at the emotional wallop of it. Referring to Bill Denbrough, the protagonist of the story, King writes that he still “… sometimes thinks on those early mornings after dreaming when he almost remembers his childhood, and the friends with whom he shared it”. I’d never heard a better way of describing that vague mix of melancholy and joy that we so inadequately think of as nostalgia.
While all those incidents are truly special for me it was at the multiplex theater in Sheepshead bay that the single most potent artistic moment of my life occurred. August of 1992 Unforgiven was released. I’m a big fan of the movie in general but there is a scene at what seems to be the beginning of the third act that is one of my favorite and within that scene what is, in my opinion, the greatest line of dialogue ever written. In the scene The Schofield Kid, played perfectly by Jaimz Woolvett is talking to William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood. In an extended soliloquy The Kid (speaking mostly to himself) tries to accept, and then distance himself from the murder he has just committed. The immensity of this act has overwhelmed him and in speaking about it he tries, and fails to come to terms with it. His guilt changes his face with every beat. When he exhausts all other ways to make peace with it he resorts to a final attempt at rationalization. Hoping for some relief he looks at Will and says “.. well, I guess they had it coming.” And then my life changed. Will turns to him and replies, “we all have it coming Kid.” In the twenty-five years that have passed I have never watched that scene without experiencing a brutally conflicted set of emotions. There has always been an instant of powerful motivation; the desire to write is immediate and undeniable. Just as quickly comes the crushing certainty that there is no point in ever trying to write anything again. I will never equal that moment. I still feel that way, but am writing anyway. That is the best peace I can make with it. David Webb Peoples wrote that script. If I never get to meet you Mr. Peoples I just wanted to thank you. As painful as it’s been in some ways there is still something amazing in having been fully aware that I was living through a transformative few seconds of my life.