I recently bought a CD of disco’s greatest hits. I played the whole thing through and didn’t get bored. I wanted more, so I played it again. The Village People, Donna Summers . . . wow! Throw away those anti-depressants, I’m high on High Voltage Pop. Reggae is good for the same thing. You don’t even have to listen to the words.
When I was a kid two foreign tunes hit the top 40 airwaves. One was “Volare,” from Italy, and the other, ten years later, whose name I never caught, was catchy and from Japan. Didn’t have a clue what the words meant, but like everybody else, I loved them. Joy without literal content.
Speaking of the triumph of form over content, Elvis movies also never fail to delight me. Jailhouse Rock was the first real Elvis movie, and he played himself. Well, sort of. His character was a self-absorbed hillbilly who finally learned to honor those who helped him get his start. All Elvis had to do was play himself, and he did a darn good job. Check out Viva Las Vegas if you want to see the Hillbilly Cat meet his match in the ultimate sex kitten, Ann Margaret.
Our world abounds with silly yet delightful things. In the Bible it says, “God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” I’m not sure what that means, but I think it gives us permission to turn our value system upside down whenever it makes us happy to do so. Found art. Bazooka Joe Comics. Flo-Bee, the haircutting system that uses your shop-vac to power the vibrating blades and suck away the hair trimmings. Costume jewelry. Zirconium rings. Wipe-on tanning lotions. Spray-foam hair replacements. We’re awash in a sea of silliness.
From a certain perspective, kitsch becomes cute. Liberace and Lawrence Welk, paintings of big-eyed kids and sad puppies, TV shows starring Regis Philbin or Kathy Lee Gifford, all lose their power to evoke despair and instead become mildly comic.
Such a perspective is, I believe, what we hippies used to call “cosmic.” It’s a generous and broad view of things, instead of petty and narrow judgment. Two movies come to mind that aspire to such a view of things. One is Babett’s Feast, the other Diary of a Country Priest, a 1948 film. In both cases, the protagonists realize that everything is grace, mercy, an unearned gift. Missed opportunities, frustrated ambition, the grief of loss, the pain of suffering—are all temporary, and in the long run, insignificant. Of course, it’s easy for me to say such things now. Check with me in a few years when I’m riddled with cancer and pressing the morphine button.
But if you can trick yourself into accepting such a cosmology, then being amused rather than depressed by the world becomes an easier task.
By the way, summer in Iowa is a wonderful time to explore the dumpy little towns of Northern Missouri. Have you been to Edina yet? How about Memphis? They’re just a day trip from any point in southeastern Iowa, but they might as well be on the moon. And if you really have the stomach for a long drive, check out Arkansas.
I keep promising myself I’m going to drive to visit my two favorite living writers, Charles Portis, who must be in his eighties and lives somewhere in Arkansas, and Bruce Jay Friedman, who is probably in his late seventies, and lives in New York City. Igot to make those pilgrimages while there’s still time.
If I were to count up and review all the missed opportunities to connect with people whom I would have loved to have seen, maybe it would prompt me to put a fire under my half-formed plans to pay homage to my literary mentors. I once had an argument with my wife and we walked out of a Roy Orbison concert a couple of weeks before he died. I even had plans to look up Elvis at Graceland. I almost ushered one of Frank Sinatra’s last shows. It would have meant free admission to a historic event, but no, something more important got in the way. Can’t remember now what it was, but it stopped me from hearing Old Blue Eyes live.
So carpe diem, y’all!
You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.