It is somewhere around 1980. In a house at the end of a gravel road on an Indian Reserve in southern Alberta, I am looking through my father’s collection of LPs. It is not a vast collection, unlike his collection of books, but there are some I do not know. One album presents a mystical eruption on its cover: a seated figure in a chthonic submergence, flanked by a newborn and a skull in the hues of an old stone jungle temple, but from the head of the figure pushes up a jetof light that sprays up to a human figure bursting forth in sunlike splendor, breaking through a crust of eldritch lettering, IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD. And radiating as an orange nimbus or celestial petals from the head of the glorious figure are the letters of THE MOODY BLUES.
I open the album. The interior fold displays, full before me on the recto, in stark black lines that beg unrequited for a crayon, a yantra – a mandala of sorts, a visual mantra, as the text above it explains.
Clearly this is a religious record of some sort. It bespeaks mystical awakening, resurgence, recrudescence. The seed of the soul emerging from its bed in the body and splitting the hard shell of the material world, to enter – or create – heaven, nirvana, whatever transcendence you may discover, so far beyond words.
In fact, my father subsequently tells me, it is simply a rock record that my cousin Sharon – only four years my father’s junior, and like a sister to him in their youth – gave to him some years earlier. He didn’t really fancy it, so he had simply buried it in his collection.
I fancied it.
When I first put it on the record player, I heard an arpeggio, a crash, and then the sounds of a synthesizer emulating the take-off of an airplane or something far more advanced, over which were spoken a poem. Graeme Edge’s “Departure,” with segue into “Ride My See-Saw.” In the poem, one line stuck in my memory: “The wonder of flowers to be covered and then to burst up, through tarmac, to the sun again.” The first time I remember hearing tarmac.
In that sound context, what struck me first was “to burst up through tarmac”: once I knew that tarmac was a British word for pavement or a runway, I imagined an airplane, passing down the tarmac – through it as one goes through a stretch of road – and off up to the sun. But of course the tarmac is not simply a surface you can launch yourself from. No. It is the shell, the cocoon, the hard pavement through which flowers break nonetheless. Buried but life will out.
This happens everywhere. It happened in the cracked sidewalks of the towns and cities of my youth, in the underused pavements of playgrounds and parking lots, and at the edges of highways. And hopes, fears, anxieties, loves, joys, yearnings, the things we learn to contain and repress and hide within: we pave them over, we run a crust of tar and gravel on top of them so that we can drive our lives over them, but at some time they may still push their tender stems through and embarrass the dusty dark hard surface with a spray of vulnerable joy.
But I will not scorn tarmac too glibly. I grew up in a place where many roads are gravel. In rural southern Alberta, every windshield has its cracks. Even on the car mat under your feet there will be little stones. If we went for an evening into the city, my slumber in the back of the car would at last be disturbed by the sound announcing our impending arrival home: we had turned off the highway and onto the growl spit and clatter of sharp little rocks. You can hear cars coming a long way away on gravel; you can see their dust clouds at a distance. Paved roads permit much more speed, much less noise, far fewer cracks in the glass. Paved roads are not an acquired taste; they are something you almost certainly like immediately if you know the alternative.
Which is why tarmac took off so quickly when it was invented. This mixture of tar and macadam, paving and sealing the surface. Such a smooth trip.
We know what tar is. What is macadam? In its own time, an improvement, too: a road surface made of crushed stone, but properly assembled, smaller on top of larger. A well-made gravel road – better, certainly, than many of the gravel roads in rural Alberta. Invented by John Loudon McAdam. You will see that there is an extra a inserted like a sweet little nut in the word: McAdam – macadam. This John McAdam is thus not the John Macadam after whom macadamia nuts were named.
Civilization has its sweets. The aroma of roads being paved smelled like dark cunning candy to the youthful me. But you can have too much of a good thing. London is now experiencing worse floods because so many Englishmen have paved their gardens over, and the rain goes straight to gutter rather than soaking into soil. Toronto seems to have something of the same problem. If you ask people for their vision of paradise, it is unlikely they will see it as paved. And yet this is what we do a bit too much.
And this is what we are a bit too much, too. The railroad in its time came and pushed through the green, dark forest that was too silent to be real, but in our days the highway does that, and more, and we are the highway, our cars and our markets are the tarmac that lay the hard crust over what was there before.
Ask a Stoney.
The Stoney Indian Reserve is the reserve I grew up on, at Morley. I am not Stoney, I am not fresh earth, I am not gravel, I am tarmac. My culture is the culture that steamrolls the world, even as individuals in it may feel steamrolled too. I may feel the need for my own personal flowers to burst up through the tarmac. But ask a Stoney about not just small things but all things being covered, about wanting to burst up to the sun again. Ask Thomas Snow, who will tell you about the strength in bursting up through and then putting roots in and growing higher.
We do not all experience that. But we all experience our efflorescences. We all have memories that send tendrils forth through the forgetting; we all have records that are drawn out again from time to time.
I’ve pulled one out now. It’s resting, leaning, next to the plush chair in which I sit as I write this. It’s the same album I pulled off the shelf those many years ago, the figure erupting in a spiritual sun-geyser on the cover. On the back cover, photos of The Moody Blues, a listing of songs and, on the upper left corner, a sticker bearing my father’s name and our mailing address as it was more than 40 years ago.
James, this piece is provocative and beautiful. More poetic than prosaic. Thanks!
I like what you write, what you write about, how you write. I share what you have to say with my youngest son, my daughter, my son-in- law and my dog, Bob, who is 15 and dying, but his expressive eyes say he delights in what you have to say too.
I live is a somewhat remote setting, heat with wood, eat venison and wild turkey, and drink very good bourbon in small amounts to savoir it while I listen to my vinyl, Ben Webster, Billy Holiday, CCR, the Stones, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Pink Floyd and the moody Blues. This piece you wrote touched my heart. Thank you.