Today might be the most beautiful day of the year.
Summer's all the sweeter for being almost gone—that cricket sound, the sad reminder that school's starting again. It's starting to get dark earlier. The moon was full the night before last and it was as orange as a pumpkin.
Years back—more than five, less than ten—I was kissing the summer goodbye in Blue Hill, Maine, and I was all alone, camping and going to a fair. This little campground I chose was the closest one to the fabled Blue Hill Fair, where it was rumored the old guys who drive teams of oxen were putting on a special competition where they show up in their wives' underwear.
Well, I am here to tell you that it's true.
The winning entry was a strapping farmhand with his two prize calves—I mean the hairy ones on his legs—decked out in a LEOPARD PRINT SLIP and a curly wig that harmonized pretty awesomely with his ox—a red Devon, smooth as a piece of putty and as sharp as its owner was fuzzy. Second place went to an old Amish-looking guy, with the hat and beard and everything, who was wearing a Lanz of Salzburg nightie. You know, the flannel kind with the leg o'mutton sleeves: Green Acres meets The Sound of Music.
The real story happened on the way home.
I pulled out of Blue Hill on Labor Day with sadness. I'd spent my holiday alone and was going back to the place that created that loneliness. I was married. But I went everywhere alone. The only thing I wanted was someone to go with me. I thought marriage was supposed to do that. I switched on the radio and landed right in the middle of k.d. lang's "Summerthing," a song I'd never heard before but was easy to trace to its inimitable singer. The next song was also a hymn to summer, a sweet, meandering melody on a single guitar string followed by the sound of wheeling gulls, a languid harmonica, then a calm, resigned man's voice that became louder and more insistent until the singer was shouting, "Let's take off our clothes and jump into the RIVER! HEY!"
I never heard the rest of it. I was too busy crying by the side of the road. I knew if I stayed where I was I would never take off my clothes and jump into the river again. And with that came the wave of fear that told me it wouldn't be long before I'd have to pack my things into boxes from the liquor store and leave my home. The song said so without saying it, and I knew it was final.
You do this now, or soon—you make a place for it—or you will never do it again.
Back in Stuyvesant Falls, I Googled the lyrics (SoundHound having not yet been invented) and found the singer's name, Chuck Prophet, and the song,"Summertime Thing." I eventually recovered from the storm "Summertime Thing" set into motion, though it took some years and what has been poetically termed "forever changes." I lost my country home and turned into a nomad. Still, and ever since, Chuck Prophet's "Summertime Thing" has been under my skin.
I tracked down, and learned to love, other Prophet songs: "I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I Meet," and especially "Soap and Water," actually a word puzzle in which two singers (Prophet and his wife, Stephanie Finch) trade off clichés that are paired because they contain some contradictory idea. There's Sweet Butter and Sour Mash...Hot legs/Cold cash...Dry hump/Wet Nurse.
Somewhere in the middle of "Soap and Water," the opposites start to slip. From "Bad back/good side" it goes into "Lump sugar/French fries" and while trying to figure out whether it's French and lump together, or sugar and French, or lump and fries, Finch whispers "close quarters," and Chuck goes "thick plot," and Finch giggles one single syllable and it's dirty, which I like.
Chuck Prophet writes a lot of female characters into his songs: damaged, whole, strange, hardworking, deluded, laughing (there's even one named Laughing Sal) chicks, seldom-seen characters in the pop music.
Bella served me coffee
She kept the biscuits warm
Never seen her even once
Out of her uniform
Katie had an ugly dog
She swore would never bite
Followed that girl everywhere
Never left her sight
She said, baby baby baby
Crawl out of your shell
I will show you something
if you promise not to tell...
Think of all the nifty things we could do in secret if we all were a little bit braver.
This past summer I was working alone in my old home in Stuyvesant Falls, New York when I saw that Chuck Prophet and his band, The Mission Express, was set to play at Helsinki Hudson. I put on my favorite summer dress and invited The Professor, my visiting upper-crusty friend from Rittenhouse Square in Philly, and presented myself at the show in my very best mood. It was almost eight years after I first heard the song and light years away from the sadness that inspired my love of it. I wanted to see what that song would do, if in the best of lucky circumstances Mr. Prophet actually played it.
It only took two songs before I squeezed up to the stage to get a better look at Chuck and Stephanie. Chuck was taller than I thought he'd be, and a little more weary and at the same time younger; his wife had a worldly air yet wore her hair in pigtails as if she were getting ready to audition as an assistant to Bettie Page. The new songs from the latest album, "Temple Beautiful," were fun and bouncy: since that day I've sent Prophet's music around to friends who tend to reply that he "sounds like Petty who sounds like Dylan who sounds like..." It would never have worked without a good drummer, but there was a good drummer, so I was jumping up and down that night. I can't remember the last time I've done that.
The height of the evening would have to be the band's showpiece. After a little rousing of the crowd ("What time is it? Summertime!") Chuck Prophet launched into Summertime Thing.
After a couple of verses, Chuck Prophet swapped out his acoustic guitar for his Fender, and instead of putting the acoustic back on the stand, he turned and handed it to me.
Me. I was just standing there. Holding Chuck Prophet's guitar.
Prophet was using a capo and while I recognized the fingering I couldn't figure out the key, and during this weak moment a guy next to me took the guitar out of my hands. Chuck P. said really nicely to the man (I think his words were "it looks cuter if she does it") and in a second I was holding the guitar again. I looked up at Chuck, who said, "It's in G." And oh, now I get it, the playing came easily, with the G descending into an F and then an elegiac C. Not only was I playing my favorite song, the one that pointed out the right direction in my slippy little life, Chuck Prophet was playing it too and we were playing it together.
When we came to the end, Chuck P. looked at me and we did that scrubby loud whangblangdiddle ending together, him encouraging me to scrub louder and longer, me just trying to do what came next. I stopped at the teeshirt table on the way out to buy "Temple Beautiful" from Prophet himself, and explained why the song meant so much to me. I'd had a hard time playing it at first and finally figured it out "but nobody could hear me anyway, so that was OK."
"Oh no," Chuck said. "You were plugged in the whole time."
So that's how I played my favorite song and became as much a part of it as it's a part of me.
It's always good to get outside your comfort zone. And it's never too late to rock and roll.
Somebody ought to tell The Professor. He spent the entire evening with his fingers in his ears.
Please, everybody, take off your clothes, jump in the river, sing real loud. Hey! It's a summertime thing.