Old Songs and Jet Planes
One of my favourite songs as a teenager was ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ by Peter Paul and Mary. When I danced to it at school hops it lent a magnificent poignancy to the proceedings. Okay, so I may have recently sat the ‘Inter’, but that song was like a jet plane itself. Its lyrics gave me an entirely different provenance. I was in love and about to travel to a distant place. And I had, it seemed, done this many times already. This was my lifestyle. I apologised to the poor person I was leaving, but it did not prevent me from getting on that plane. I hated to go, but I went, I was that sort of person. I probably should have been packing instead of swaying about self-consciously in a schoolroom cleared of desks.
‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ by the Beach Boys evoked an entirely different array of feelings. When I listened to that song I wanted to be older. Romantic yearnings surfed on the notes. This was Californian music, tanned and outdoorsy and sensual.
James Taylor was less ebullient. I played him on the family gramophone which was in the kitchen and lodged on top of a huge radio. It was an old apparatus that needed some coaxing. But James was a patient sort, or seemed to be anyway. I had just one precious LP of his. He was smiling on the cover dressed in a blue shirt and braces. He was very American and somewhat melancholy. A lonely balladeer.
Yes, James knew about suffering. I liked that about him because I was now well into my teens. ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ he sang. I wished he was my friend, though he was in a way of course. He sang to me through grooves on thick vinyl. Sometimes fluff got onto the gramophone needle and muffled his endearments. I had to clean it so his voice was loud and clear and intimate. No-one else who wandered into the kitchen appreciated his deep sensitivity the way I did.
Glen Campbell was very different to James Taylor. I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of him only a boy I dated in my mid teens thought he was terrific. He was a bit like Glen himself, tall and well built. He was a fellow student. Glen was his kind of guy.
I tried to understand Glen myself. Some of his songs were about trucks and highways and had loads of longing. He longed for Galveston, for example, where on earth was that? And he also sang about a Wichita lineman. In ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ he also mentioned Albuquerque and Oklahoma. I liked that he seemed to assume my familiarity with these places, but there was something burly about him. Other people could adore him. By then I had found Cat Stevens.
My relationship with Cat was a bit more complicated. He was soulful and mysterious and even sang about peace trains.. Yes, Cat inhabited a big world. And he wasn’t burdened by misery, though he did sometimes sound very poignant. When a fan handed him a bar of chocolate at a concert he ate it right there and then on the stage.
I didn’t pine for Cat too much, however, because I went to that concert with my first love, who looked a bit like him. We lived together for some years, and then we parted. When I heard a group called Player sing ‘Baby Come Back’ I used to cry. I had thought love lasted forever, though if I’d listened to those early songs closely enough I would have realised there was no guarantee that it would. In ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ the person didn’t even know when they’d come back again. Glen left some woman in ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. And Cat sang ‘I Love My Dog’ because he knew at least a dog’s love always lasted.
And now I find my love for the old songs has lasted too. The songs that spoke to my youthful dreams and longings, and elsewheres. Their melodies and lyrics seem to dip, soar and glide in some high blue undiminished place I can revisit any time I want to. Sweet and fresh, bittersweet and tender.
Jet plane memories that soar above…and somehow beyond…the past.
Shared with the kind permission of Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio
Fancy a peek at an interview I did? Click here