Trust It

I walked into the room and Kevin Price had his head in his hands. He was my dedicated Instructor Pilot (IP) during the T-38 phase of pilot training. I asked him what was wrong.

“Stevie Ray just died,” he said. He looked so sad, I assumed Stevie Ray was a member of his family. I asked who that was. Then he looked like I just made it worse.

“Stevie Ray. Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he said. I blinked, not understanding.

He explained that Stevie Ray was one of the greatest blues guitarists in history. He said this was a tragedy. I was confused because I claimed to know the blues. I knew John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. But somehow I missed the memo on SRV. I went backwards through history and figured out what I missed. I soon agreed it was a tragedy. Now, when I’m on layovers in Austin, Texas, I run by Stevie Ray’s statue by the river and give a little nod. I even play half-assed versions of “Cold Shot”, “Red House”,  and “Life By The Drop.”

But here’s what I’m getting at. Seven years before his death, I sat in my room in high school doing homework while the David Bowie “Let’s Dance” cassette played in the tape deck. I thought the guitar was pretty awesome. More than awesome. I especially remember these tracks: Let’s Dance, China Girl, and Cat People.

I was a kid. I just figured it was David Bowie on the axe. Probably because of the Let’s Dance video where Bowie seems to play a guitar.

It was many years after Stevie Ray died that I learned that he was the one playing the guitar on most of the tracks on Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album. Bowie saw SRV at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982 and was blown away. He invited Stevie to play on his album. I was also blown away by the guitar in my little room, long before who I even knew who Stevie Ray was. I followed this little thread backwards and forwards through time and arrived at a place where my interest and my knowledge met. Stevie was talking to me for years, I just didn’t know it.

Kind of like how later I learned that New Order was an offshoot of Joy Division. Or that Fine Young Cannibals and General Public were the spawn of the English Beat. Or the path from Bauhaus through Tones on Tail to Love and Rockets. Or when you learn that Diana Krall is married to Elvis Costello. I’ve forgotten which bands I knew about first. But I’m almost certain I didn’t learn the stuff I liked in chronological order. I’d like one thing, then another, and then later, find out they were related. Maybe even directly related. And then feel like I was consistently attracted to things that ended up being the same. I could trust my own instincts.

There’s a band from the 80’s called the Cocteau Twins. I’m probably the only person you know who has everything they recorded. The reason I like them is because of Elizabeth Fraser, the vocalist. Her voice is remarkable. And most of the time, I’m not even sure she’s speaking English. From some interviews I’ve read, she’s not sure she is either. But that voice.

If you’re still reading, you’re as twisted as I am, so follow this 30-year thread with me:

  • I like the Cocteau Twins.
  • I get into Massive Attack, mostly because of the song “Protection” featuring Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl. (which leads to the bands Mazzy Star and Portishead.) 
  • I like the TV show “House” with Hugh Laurie in the grouchy lead role. I especially like the song that opens the show. Turns out it’s a Massive Attack song that I thought I recognized from the Mezzanine album. Cool, right? I binge watch the whole series and don’t even fast forward the opening song, because I like it. Of note, the TV show theme snip isn’t long enough to include the ethereal vocals of the woman singing, but still cool. 
  • About three years ago, I was on a layover where the hotel has –gasp–HBO! We don’t even have hot and cold running water in the house in Duluth, so I usually check out what’s on HBO. I stumbled into a movie called “Greetings from Tim Buckley” It’s essentially the origin story of Jeff Buckley, who emerged at a tribute concert to his estranged father, Tim Buckley, a famous singer. I looked into Jeff Buckley. He’s probably most famous for his version of “Hallelujah” but I recognized him from “Last Goodbye.” Naturally, he died (drowning accident) in 1997. Another artist I was interested in too late
  • Just a few weeks ago, for some reason, I fell into rabbit hole on the web. I somehow saw that Elizabeth Fraser released a “new” song ten years ago. In the course of looking at YouTube videos of her songs, I saw that she sang a song with a band called This Mortal Coil way back in 1983 called “Song to the Siren.” Beautiful, I thought. Amazingly, I learned that it was a cover of a Tim Buckley song. Hey, I know who Tim Buckley is, I thought. That’s Jeff Buckley’s dad.
  • Then, I get decapitated by the discovery that Jeff Buckley and Liz Fraser recorded a song together in the mid-90’s called “All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun.” Turns out they had an “intense” relationship. Amazing convergence of voices. Even freakier that Fraser is singing a song with Jeff Buckley 15 years after she covered a song by his father. 
  • Stumbling around the internet some more, I find out that she was recording a song with Massive Attack when she learned that Jeff Buckley drowned. She essentially said  that the song Teardrop was a tribute to Jeff Buckley because she put her sadness at learning about his death into the song. Wait, WHAT? LIZ FRASER WAS THE SINGER ON TEARDROP? THE MASSIVE ATTACK SONG I LIKED FOR 20 YEARS (AND WAS THE SONG ON HOUSE) WAS ELIZABETH FRASER FROM THE COCTEAU TWINS?

This is the most recent example of why I love music. And why, when I find myself strangely compelled by something I see, read, or hear, I’ve learned to keep following it.  I’ve learned to trust my curiosity. To follow the whispers and the threads to the end. The connections are astounding.


Posted in Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Grammie and Me

Grammie and Me, Christmas 1967

My book, Hugging This Rock  came out yesterday. I dedicated it to Dorothy Chandler, my grandmother. I explain some of my reasons in the book. In short, she was full of ditties and poems and songs that just bubbled out of her all the time.

She died when I was a young lieutenant stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. I remember being on the phone with my folks asking if I should fly to Maine for the funeral. Somehow, groupthink took over and we agreed that I should stay in Alaska for all that important Air Force stuff I was doing. What could I possibly have been doing that was more important? Horrible misprioritization on my part.

Around that time, I was using an old Panasonic electric typewriter to write things down. Journal entries and quotes that I found in books that I read. Today, I remembered typing something about her, not long after she died. I looked around the house until I found the right binder. There it was on the front page. I dedicated that pile of typewritten chaos in the binder to her and nearly forgot that I wrote it.

Now that I’ve got some mileage, I’m able to see that Kurt Vonnegut was right: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Words, intentions, thoughts, and memories have spooky power. Somehow in the back of my mind, my grandmother nudged me along for 25 years until she showed up on the dedication page of a real book.

I hope the poems in the book aren’t crappy. But that anxiety is overwhelmed by a massive feeling of relief. Gratitude that I didn’t run out of time.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

I’ve Got Heritage, Too


A painting titled: “EVEN TO HELL ITSELF” THE BATTLE OF NORTH ANNA May 24, 1864 Lieutenant Colonel Charles L. Chandler rallying the 57th Massachusetts Infantry at Ox Ford on the North Anna River, just north of Richmond, Va.

I was in Moorhead, Minnesota at Concordia College to hear my son play piano in the All-State Jazz Band. But it was the All-State Symphonic Band that hit me hard. They played a piece called “The Frozen Cathedral” by John Mackey. It was a work commissioned by a man who wanted to memorialize his dead son. His son loved the high country of Alaska near Denali National Park. It was a stirring piece. You could imagine being surrounded in pillars of ice and stone. It was sad and somehow rose to an ending filled with both misery and incredible joy.

I looked at the crowd of young high school faces that played this beautiful music while Nazis and white supremacists marched openly in the streets of my country. The contrast was stark.

You know the science fiction movies where aliens come to earth? The aliens try to understand our ways. They’re confused by all the good and evil at the same time. I always thought that paradox was melodramatic. Until this concert.

White supremacists marched in the streets of Charlottesville and chanted “blood and soil.” This is a slogan of a racist ideology espoused by Nazis. I listen to people waving the Confederate battle flag say that the flag isn’t about racism. It’s about their heritage. Well, I’m going to talk about my heritage a little bit. I’m going to talk about where my blood is in the soil.

Lt Col Charles P. Chandler died about 100 miles to the east of Charlottesville in a battle called Malvern Hill in 1862. The letter promoting him to full colonel arrived the next day. No Chandler ever seems to make it to colonel, but that’s a story for another time.

His cousin, Lt Col Charles L. Chandler died about 60 miles to the east of Charlottesville in the Battle of the North Anna River. He was ordered to charge a heavily defended rebel position in May, 1864. He had his arm shot off in a muddy ditch during a thunderstorm. He was 24 years old and had already been fighting for three straight years.

Hannah Chandler Ropes was a Civil War nurse from New Gloucester, Maine, the town that my family helped start in the late 1700’s. She went to Kansas in 1855 as an abolitionist to try to keep Kansas from becoming a slave state. To defend herself from pro-slavery raiders from Missouri, she slept with “loaded pistols and a bowie-knife upon my table at night, (and) three Sharp’s rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” Later, she worked with Louisa May Alcott tending to the wounded Union soldiers at a hospital in Georgetown. She died of typhoid pneumonia in 1863 about 120 miles from Charlottesville. She’s buried in Maine a few yards away from my grandparents.

The first arrival, Edmund Chandler came to this continent around 1630. He was “tail-end Charlie” of the separatists that were booted out of England to Holland. He sorted out affairs in Leiden while the rest of the group crossed the ocean to start the Plymouth Colony. He followed later so he could practice his religion freely.

A century and a half later, one of his descendants was in the Battle of Machias, the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War. Judah Chandler joined about 50 militiamen who commandeered two ships. They chased down and captured the armed British sloop Margaretta. Throughout the war, privateers operating out of Machias were a constant pain in the British Royal Navy’s ass.

My grandfather, Raymond Jackson, won the Bronze Star for planning the assault on Kesternich in Germany during the breakout after the Battle of the Bulge. He received a battlefield promotion to major. He and the 311th Timberwolves, 78th Lightning Division, were the first American infantry regiment to cross the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River into Nazi Germany.

Do any of these actions confer glory on me? No. I could be reading these stories about anybody. But it just so happens that they are my family members. So, I naturally wonder if the same things flow through all of those veins. Through my veins.

My family got here early to pursue religious freedom. My family fought tyranny in the Revolutionary War. My family fought and died to preserve the Union and eliminate slavery. My family fought the tyranny that wore swastikas. I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic. I served for over 20 years. I went overseas seven different times to fight the enemies of our way of life. I tried to do my part, like my ancestors.

I believe in the Constitution and in free speech. This means I’m free to express my opinion about my domestic enemies chanting Nazi slogans and waving Confederate battle flags in my country. They are unacceptable. They are a cancer.

This is my country. My flesh has mixed with the soil of this continent for almost 400 years. My family helped build and defend a form of government that allows us to lurch forward to a better world. One where we are all created equal. That’s my heritage.

Dear white supremacists and Nazis: Stop waving the flags and chanting the slogans of my nation’s defeated enemies. I hope you go away and turn your life around. Failing that, I hope you realize the full extent of your moral bankruptcy, like a whisper in your ear, as you take your last breath.


Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments