Did you ever see a part of your past burn away? When I was a child, we lived in a very small town called Gurdon, Arkansas. Our home was a huge white house, but not because it was some form of mansion or elite palace. It instead had lived most of its life as the local boarding house for railroad workers. My folks adopted it from the animal shelter, and combed out the substantial knots and mange, and we all moved in like so many happy fleas. We lived right near the tracks. Across the way, about a block over, but visible from our home, a huge hay warehouse stood. We never went in, but a hay warehouse has its own charm, with an aroma, different in kind but similar in intensity to a bread factory, and a kind of tin-walled dull splendour. Nobody really needs kings, queens, or even supermodels when one has tin-shackled palaces of dried grass, with their own aromatic majesty.
We tend to think a lot about our time having troubles that no other time experienced, but in fact, the poor we have always had with us. A vagrant seeking winter warmth camped out amid the hay, apparently with a special comforter whose active ingredient was based on a chemical called "ethanol", which, when combined with human blood, makes for curious distortions in the space/time/rationality continuum for the partaker, which some find a comfort, others find a plague, and I personally always find a bit beside the point for me, and a needless risk for most. But I have lived my life among tin hay-barns, and euphoria comes easily to me, unaided, so I take my stone, if you don't mind, and replace it on the stone-pile, uncast.
The homeless fellow managed to set fire to a haybarn. Note to haybarn campers: no smoking. Hay is a wonderful thing--it bales up right nice, cows love it, and it feels good to the touch. But it is tender tinder, a great way to burn a barn down. So he did.
My mother woke us up to stand in our yard and watch it burn. It was like the Fourth of July, only without the blue plumes which resolve themselves into stars or dragons. Even a block away, "cattycorner", we could have, I think, held up marshmallows on sticks and made out quite
roastingly. The barn presented us quite a spectacle as it burned to the ground.
Fire is such a dangerous devastation. But did you ever notice how beautiful a tornado can be? Forces of nature do not kowtow to people, but one cannot help but admire their majesty anyway.
So it was with this haybarn fire. So it was when I saw a forest fire in the chapparal above Lake Piru in reasonably remote southern California--tongues of flame amid Our Lord's Candle--shrub and chapparal and century plant licked by flame.
This week fire reached into my memories and burned them in a single afternoon and evening. In Dallas, the Arcadia Theater stood since the 1920s. For much of my young adulthood, the Arcadia
served as one of the better concert venues for shows by bands too large for clubs and too small for the full-bore concert halls. I have some lovely memories from the Arcadia. I saw the Residents' 13th Anniversary show there, completing a necessary milestone in my adulation for the ultimate DIY
aesthetic success story. Guadalcanal and the dBs would play there, producing a style of early roots Americana alternative, with jangly guitars and sardonic pop tunes, that I was sure would some day convert America, but America sadly remained heathen, and ultimately went into a deep red funk, pursuing false gods, AM radio, and televangelists.
Perhaps the greatest 1980s band that did not "make it" was Alejandro Escobedo's True Believers. Their blend of border music styles into a frenetic altrock style brought audiences to ecstasy.
Their song "Ringing the Bell" comes to me still, years later, as a nearly perfect rock song.
I remember seeing them play it at the Arcadia. I remember Donovan, seated with a guitar, under a spot. People would shout requests, and he smiled, and said in his Donovan burr, "I have no idea what you said, but I loved the sounds of you saying it". If I were a worn-out pop star, with a surprising amount of life in me for all that, I'd love to be able to hear the vibrations of my fans' fervor even more than I'd love their words. I suspect that even the transitory thrill of casual affairs with people who merely want bragging rights (or even, as I understand happens often with famous or rich men, who only find immense pleasure in powerful icons rather in loving people) gets old, but that the hum and buzz of adulatory words, heard at remote, indecipherable distance, could addict one to the road like a much-beloved spouse.
The Arcadia brought me folkies like Christine Lavin and Sara Hickman. It brought indie artists and alternative artists. It brought me peace, and a good beat, and even, rarely, the desire to dance.
I read in the paper this week that a half dozen buildings in lower Greenville, including the Arcadia, burned. The Arcadia was being renovated into a club. The wonderful Mexican restaurant called Nuevo Leon burned. Other clubs burned, and a condom shop burned. The Arcadia ceased to be,
as sure as a burnt-out haybarn.
I have a place in my mind where the Arcadia once stood. In that place, the dBs are playing "Lonely is as Lonely". If I remember, that song had a lyric that went something like this:
"You? What of you? What am I supposed to do?
Live in the past, recall what was....".
I don't really live in the past. But I do live in an old haybarn--and at the Arcadia, and the fire turns my face beet red, and cools me enormnously.