Last night I met up with an old song. It had been years, but we recognized each other on sight. We originally met in junior high through my best friend, whom I shouldn’t name but don’t have the heart to give an alias to—actually, I like Alias. Alias owned not only every Elton John album in existence, but also all his posters. Her parents let her paint her room any color and one weekend we covered it in bright yellow. When it dried, every poster went up: album cover reproductions; candids of Elton and Bernie looking thoughtful; and concert close-ups – Elton in costume playing piano, Elton sweating at the mic, Elton in huge glasses singing his heart out.
Personally, I was a James Taylor fan, with pretensions to the Allman Brothers, although or because they were forbidden to me by my brother. “They are the greatest band,” he said, “If you listen to them you will ruin them.” Music at our house was serious. In addition to the Allman Brothers defender, there was a folk crusading brother who took me to tiny Chicago coffeehouses to see Steve Goodman and John Prine, and a Todd Rundgren brother who pounded out “Hello It’s Me” on piano right in the same room where I was trying to listen to “Sweet Baby James”. And there was Dad, who stopped me on my way through the dining room so he could plunk his big headphones over my ears and introduce me to Modern Jazz Quartet, whom my mother called The Four Nuts. In retaliation, she blasted Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall
But at Alias’s house, Elton ruled. There were no fights over what could be played or when or how loudly. She even had a stacking arm on her turntable so we could pile on a dozen records at a time. When I slept over in the yellow bedroom, Alias would load up Goodbye Yellow Brick Roadand Madmanand Honky Chateauand Captain Fantastic. She kept the volume low so we could listen all night, softly singing along, drifting off, waking up to talk about whatever boys we liked or careers we wanted or countries we planned to explore, then drifting off again.
Even on low,”Grey Seal” demanded attention. If I was asleep, those opening arpeggios always woke me. I couldn’t totally respect a song that used the same word twice in a refrain line—
And tell me grey seal how does it feel to be so wise
To see through eyes that only see what’s real
Tell me grey seal
“See through eyes” and “see what’s real?” Lazy. James Taylor wouldn’t do that. But I loved it for Alias’s sake. She was the first best friend I’d chosen, not just grown up next door to, and that meant everything. We’d do daring things, like go to the mall and ask people whose pants were too short, “What time is the flood?” We’d sneak into the Hallmark store and switch the cards around so that when someone bought one, it might not fit into the envelope. We were rebels.
Somewhere in high school, the song and I lost touch. It rocked ever-larger arenas and I got into Jackson Browne and Talking Heads. My family moved on to Pat Metheny, Echo and the Bunnymen, Michael Feinstein, and Wild Blue Yonder. Alias and I remained forever friends through college and marriages and marriage problems. But when I left my husband, she stopped taking my calls. We ran into each other at a reunion a few years ago. “You look good” and “You, too” were all we could think of to say.
My reunion with the song was different. It took place at Martyr’s, a club I’ve known since it was just an idea in the owners’ heads. Every time I walk in there, I recall the early stages of construction, the bar going up, the electric going in, the painted tables being layered with clear-coat. I’ve since lost touch with the club owners. They’ve never met my second husband, the real one, but a friend of his was playing there with the cover band Tributosaurus, so we got tickets.
“Grey Seal” opened the show. The urgency of the opening riff took on new lightness as played by a gang of consummate musicians who 10 years back decided to outdo the cover band concept by becoming a different artist every concert. Tributosaurus plays so well that rock critics are forced to find new ways to define cover bands, so they won’t be embarrassed by how much they love these guys. As Elton John, they recreated every fleeting nuance of songs I thought I’d forgotten—that slightly elongated pause in “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” the almost-imagined echo in “Madman Across the Water”–yet with enough virtuosic detachment to allow me to sing along with ironic abandon. I wasn’t singing the songs but my memories of songs, seeing them tumble through my mind all dusty and half-lit, while forgotten lyrics spilled from my mouth, word perfect.
Sometimes I’m scared by how many birthdays I’ve had. They come faster and faster. There’s so much to see and so little time to meet all those goals Alias and I set long ago. Maybe she’s met hers. I hope so. I also hope I don’t have to listen to”Grey Seal” ever again. If it comes up on Pandora, I’ll have to thumbs-down it. That double use of the word “see” still bugs me. But I loved meeting up with it. It made me grateful to be old enough for memories to connect from there to here, from that bright yellow bedroom to the renovated kitchen of a house I never dreamed I could be so happy in. They’re like the copper pipes that have been routed and rerouted through walls we’ve built and moved and demo’d and rebuilt, so that when water comes out of the spout I want to shake the glass and demand, “Do you have any idea what it took to fill you?”