Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hmmm, Not Sure What to Title This; I Guess “Idle Melancholia at 55”

Several things recently have reminded me of people who have been big influences in my life, who are now gone.

I’ve written recently about the death of my friend Steve Thurman (funny, silly, crazy, smart, talented, fun to be around).

And my wonderful friend Leroy Yarbrough; mentor, leader, adult male authority figure, later friend—so huge an influence on so many people (including me).

Then Mother, of course; Grannie; Uncle Horace and Aunt Edna; Aunt Paulie; Aunt Virginia; Uncle Cal; “Pop” (Uncle Bill); Granny and Gramp---I can still hear all their voices, remember their personalities and little idiosyncrasies---Mother’s wit, smile, and laugh; Grannie soft and pink and sweet; “H” in his suit and hat (very dapper, he), with a crystal iced tea glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigar in the other, headed to “Tunikuh” (Tunica, MS); Edna slim and composed, every hair in place, with a Virginia Slims 120; Paulie blasting around town in her ‘65 Impala SS, visiting all her friends; Virginia’s biting wit, southern aristocratic manner, and fabulous hostessing; Cal, logical, calm, cool; Pop’s great laugh; Granny’s voice and mannerisms (if you’ve seen “Driving Miss Daisy” you’ve met Granny); Gramp’s soft voice and gentle air masking an iron constitution…

…and then there was my friend Jimmy Thompson.

Jimmy has been on my mind a lot lately.  I’ve missed him through the years (he died over 20 years ago (!), of course, but for some reason I’m really thinking of him a lot right now.

Jimmy had a fascinating life.  Born in Paris, Texas, America (as opposed to “that other” Paris), Jimmy grew up a musician, prankster, and general “citizen of the world”.  He went to college, got his degree in Organ Performance, became an officer in the Marine Corps, eventually becoming Director of the Marine Band (The President’s Own) for President Eisenhower (one of his predecessors in that position was John Philip Sousa…).

He lived all over the world; painted, sculpted, played the organ with dash and fire.  He was a High School Band director in San Angelo, Texas (never quite sure how he got back there), then returned home to Paris, Texas, America (as opposed to “that other” Paris).  (I repeat the phrase because that’s the way Jimmy ALWAYS referred to it—the phrase, in its entirety:  Paris, Texas, America (as opposed to “that other” Paris).  Moved back into the family home and cared for his aged mother (father died, rest of family on their own). 

When I met Jimmy, he was serving as  Organist/Choirmaster at a church in Paris, Texas, America (as opposed to “that other” Paris).  I met him through mutual friends and we immediately hit it off, despite our significant age difference (he was 60, I was 25).  Besides mutual shared interests, I think we enjoyed each other’s sense of humor; Jimmy could always be counted on for a wisecrack, a wry observation, or some sly remark at the exact most inopportune moment.  We’d be somewhere SERIOUS; you could hear a pin drop, and he’d lean over and make some sotto voce remark that would have the rest of us dying, biting our tongues, lips, hands, anything--trying not to howl with laughter while he sat there serenely.  I had (and have) a sarcastic sense of humor that I think…well, know…he enjoyed as well.

There were many adventures best left untold here—some in the shiny black Cadillac with the red interior (“Black-Ass”), some in the shiny red Thunderbird (“Red-Ass”)—all of Jimmy’s cars were “-insert color- Ass”—most out running around or traveling, always with music mixed in.

I was reminded of Jimmy yesterday; I’m in the Magnavox club as I’ve mentioned, and someone wanted a piece of music that would be a good “test” of the bass of his freshly restored Magnavox console.  I immediately knew what to suggest:  Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony #3 in C-Minor, otherwise known as “The Organ Symphony.”  (And yes, I know they co-opted this 1887 masterpiece into the theme for the movie Babe…).  If you want to test some audio equipment, that’ll do it—everything from winds to reeds to trompette enchamade to 32’ bombardes to Zimbelstern, that piece has it.  It was one of Jimmy’s favourites and he played it as often as he could get away with it.  He loved to “part those old ladies’ hair”, blasting away full organ (he never made a Sunday or any other service without some bluehair complaining to the Rector about “all that loud damn music!”). 

Here’s the Saint-Saens piece on one of the world’s great organs, at St. Ouen (near “That Other Paris”)

Jimmy always said, “If you get lost and can’t find your place, just fall to playing great crashing chords; those cretins won’t know the difference and everybody’ll think you’re wonderful.”  And he was right, I witnessed it—he got lost in a Buxtehude piece one time and “fell to playing great crashing chords”.  I was turning pages for him and I couldn’t find where he was at all, then realized he was lost and just making it up.  Afterwards he got many compliments on how beautifully he’d played…with all of us standing there dying and him smiling serenely and thanking them with the utmost humility.

Jimmy had a darker side that he let very few people see.  He was haunted by depression; he was alone and missed old friends and family dreadfully.  He had manufactured his own “family” to fill that void—but he missed the others (while more current members of his “real” family drove him to distraction).  When his mother died, he decided to move to Dallas (to go to work with an old friend in his organ-building business, as tonal director), but couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else living in the family home.  He had it bulldozed to the ground, antiques and all, while he stood there alone and wept.

Jimmy died during a season that was both wonderful and hellish for him—Christmas.  He loved all the Christmas music (though, as with all church musicians, he was tired of it and ready for it to be over when the big day arrived), but had to spend time with his “real” family.  He’d had a heart attack, and the doctors had finally prevailed upon him to give up the Marlboros.  He quit for 6 months, then Christmas came and all the stresses with it; he had Christmas dinner with his “real” family and it stressed him enough that he stopped at 7-11 on his way back to Dallas and bought a pack of smokes.  The doctors told us later that was what caused the massive—and fatal—heart attack, the sudden resumption of smoking after being without.  So really, his family did it.  That’s my version of the story and I’m sticking to it…

We had many good conversations, Jimmy and I, and I asked him one time about the sadness and depression and loneliness (he’d withdraw and we wouldn’t see him for a week or so, then the sun would come out and he’d be back).  He smiled wryly at me and said, “Well, you’re awfully young.  When you’ve lived as long as I have, and had enough scars, and enough pain, and enough loss, you’ll understand.”

And now I have.  And I do.

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