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The Shipwreck Rose: All That Perfumed Hair

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 09:49

I’m not supposed to write about it, because it’s boring, but I’m one of those people who has extraordinarily intense dreams and who always wants to talk about them. They have beautiful soundtracks. When I return on the wings of sleep to the Lower East Side of my teenage years in the 1980s, my dream brain plays “Sorrow” from the David Bowie album “Diamond Dogs.” I’m told by certain friends that they secretly don’t really care much about music and aren’t affected much by melody — Sarah, I’m looking at you! — but how can that be? Melodies, it seems patently clear to me, are the web of nature, of the cosmos. I read once that atoms vibrate to recognizable intervals and octaves, and that the human genome can be expressed as a symphony.

Or something like that.

Honestly, I’ve forgotten what exactly I read on that topic during a cross-country red-eye flight, in an airline magazine, a couple of decades ago, and Google is not helping me this morning. (All things decay, especially memory. Or, as my ex-husband said yesterday as we discussed the patio furniture that had fallen victim to the weather this winter: “Entropy, entropy.” Sigh. “Entropy.”) Anyway, I don’t need an in-flight magazine to tell me that there are not just harmonies in nature but songs. Did you hear about the paleolithic flute excavated in the Ach Valley near Ulm, Germany? It was carved from the bone of a griffon vulture and played notes on a pentatonic scale.

I’ve just woken up on a Monday morning from an epic dream in which I revisited the Budapest of my youth to the soundtrack of “It Was a Very Good Year,” as sung by Frank Sinatra. I was driving a Trabant, an East German automobile from the late-Soviet period with a gearshift adjacent to the wheel, and my dear friend from Budapest days, Alison Rose, was beside me in the passenger seat, laughing nervously at my speed.


“When I was twenty-one

It was a very good year

It was a very good year for city girls

Who lived up the stair

With all that perfumed hair

And it came undone

When I was twenty-one.”


You might not be a Sinatra fan, but the composer, Evan Drake, struck a vein of pure gold with that one! I was driving a bit too fast over the cobblestones, reversing away from the curb, turning pell-mell into one-way streets, blasting under the plastic awnings of a fruit market in the little Trabant, knocking over barrows of plums and cherries. Alison and I were looking for an art cinema that I frequented circa 1994, and, of course — a recurring theme of our common dreams, a cliché — I no longer remembered the city’s geography and was lost.

The messages generated by my more than slightly sentimental dream brain aren’t obscured by silly Salvador Dali symbolism. Their meaning is right there on the surface. The Budapest of my 20s was a city of ripe fruit — plums, cherries, apricots, pears — and I was 21, and youth was a ripe fruit. We stopped the car and wandered through a warehouse. This was before I wore Joy de Jean Patou; my perfume was the freesia eau de toilette Antonia’s Flowers and my hair was long. I was wearing a grunge-style flowing dress, opaque black tights, and engineer boots, as we did in 1994, and I wet my black-tighted knees with a stream of lavish tears, crying heartbrokenly for my swiftly passing youth as Sinatra sang:

“And now I think of my life as vintage wine

From fine old kegs

From the brim to the dregs

It poured sweet and clear

It was a very good year.”


My subconscious is a bit corny. But I do wonder where my youth went. Where did I misplace it? It’s got to be here somewhere.

I’ve probably had a dozen dreams, on other nights, in which I’ve tried to locate and unlock old apartments in Manhattan, having accidentally misplaced the keys. One of these weekly columns, I’ll bore you with the narrative of the dream I had in September 1985 about Mikhail Baryshnikov. (That sounds like a punchline made up to keep my column copy perky, but it’s not: I had an unforgettably beautiful dream about falling in love with my boyfriend, Mikhail Baryshnikov, in the autumn of 1985, when I was a college student who had recently given up ballet and picked up Russian novels.) Or the one where I trudged along the sunken road at Beaumont-Hamel during the Battle of the Somme, 1916.

I’m not, really — quite yet — in the autumn of my years, though; the days aren’t dwindling down to a precious few quite yet. I’m perhaps — I hope? — still in August.

My mother, on the other hand. She is the one who is the big Sinatra fan and who is in the autumn of her years. She is 88 and has dementia and rarely engages, these days, in particularly cogent conversation. She is in the late November of her years. But, as faithful readers have already heard in a previous column, she cheers right up when we put Frankie Baby on the stereo.

She sings along in harmony and lets us know when Frankie is flat. She has that ability — which you may have seen documented in viral social-media videos in which a former ballet dancer reacts to the overture from “Swan Lake” or a resident of a nursing home comes alive to bebop — of recalling all tunes and all song lyrics, despite her conversation and, it would seem, her intellect having dissipated, evaporated, vaporized into a cloud, a vapor, a gray blank.

I went to Peconic Landing on Saturday to visit my mother, who is not having a great time, if I’m honest, not enjoying November, as it were. We were sitting as usual around the dining table, which is piled high with newspapers and junk mail from all the good causes to which she and her husband, Chris, used to donate. (Solicitations from the Nature Conservancy, the A.C.L.U., the Sierra Club, NPR, and PBS continue to accumulate like snowdrifts or, I fancy, perhaps like ticket receipts for a lifetime of generosity and good acts?) Sinatra was on the box, but when a particularly melancholy song came on, I popped up and trotted over to the Bose CD player to press fast-forward. No one needs the existential crisis of “Is That All There Is?” when they are depressed, stubbornly dressed in a nightie at 3 in the afternoon, and contemplating ways to get revenge on the dining hall chef for preparing cordon bleu again. I skipped right over “It Was a Very Good Year” and we sang along to “Skylark” instead.

Frankie sure could get a melody across. I’m a bit concerned about the pop music my teenage children are listening to these days. (As I should be, as I should.) I don’t care that it’s all boob jobs, brat-a-tat-tat gunshot sounds, misogyny, B-words, and bragging about Versace bags. Stupid as the lyrics sound to me. (They’re supposed to offend me, obviously.) No. I am bothered that a lot of the most recent genres of pop-rap seem to be glued to a single-note non-melody. I’ve tried to get my kids tuned in to classic-rap ye-oldies like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and Snoop Dogg circa 1993 — rap that, when I first heard it in my Budapest youth — exploded in my ears, but they’re having none of it. (As they shouldn’t, as they shouldn’t.) To the ears of Gen Z, it’s not the melody that counts, it’s a repeated hitting and return to a keynote. Each phrase returns at the end to the same note on the scale. There’s probably a musical term for this sort of harmonic leveling, and I am too ignorant to know it yet. But I don’t like this one-note melody thing; to me, it sounds like a stilling. I just can no longer hear what the kids can hear in the song, I guess.

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