When I was probably 12 years old, I took some of my paper route money and, improbable as it sounds about an era when rock & roll was ascendant and all youths thought that “adult” music was just as impossibly square as they do today, bought the album, “The Shadow of Your Smile” by the pop crooner Andy Williams. Part of my rationale was that my mom was a huge fan of his, and I knew she would enjoy the music on the family’s newly purchased console with “stereo hi-fi.” (Is that perhaps the great-grandfather of “wi-fi?”)
Another part was that I had settled in to watch Williams’s variety show with my mom on a regular basis, and found myself drawn to the man’s voice, his elegant phrasing, and the lush melodic beauty of the title song and a number of others on the album.
Besides, the guy had a gorgeous French wife whose name played deliciously on my tongue—Cllllaaawww-deeeeen Lon-jjhayyyyyy.
Janis and Jimi and Credence, et al, would just have to wait.
(Years later, after her divorce from Williams, Longet was convicted of negligent homicide in the shooting death of her Olympic skier boyfriend, Spider Sabich. She served 30 days on weekends, then married her defense attorney. No, I am not making this up.)
Of the dozen songs on the Williams album, every one of them a hit, one seemed to penetrate to the core of my being: “Try to Remember.” Which strikes me now as slightly absurd, given my juvenile status and lack of anything remotely connected to the life experience and emotional depth plumbed by this classic in the American songbook.
But it was—and remains—an achingly beautiful tune, tinged with tender images and hitting notes of pathos in line with the romantic sensibilities I’d inherited from both my parents.
And I can’t help but think that the lyrics themselves, involving intricate wordplay on a bunch of rhyming double “l” words—callow, fellow, follow, willow, pillow, billow, mellow, yellow—connected even then to the love of words that seems to have been planted in one of my genes, the likes of which scientists will no doubt one day locate precisely and be able to replicate at will.
All of which brings me to the overarching subject of this post: the delicious ache of September, and the gorgeous, haunting songs written in its honor.
September, of course, has autumn going for it. Though every season contains its own element of drama and wonder, come on, now—autumn, with all that death and decay amidst raging golden beauty, sidles right up to most every human being, whispering its sweet notes of romance and melancholy just before it dims the light above your head and devours your heart.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
And so on. Andy, take it away…
And the light, too. Oh my, the changing and the dying of the light.
And often enough along with it, hope.
The light pales and recedes as the leaves die, the sun’s warmth pulling back inexorably from the walls of your home, the soil in your garden, the summer glow in your heart, leaving you and your world exposed, often caught by the sudden and unbidden shiver of the season’s first cooling rain.
The leaves of brown came tumblin’ down, remember
In September, in the rain
The sun went out just like a dying ember
That September in the rain
It doesn’t matter whether the song or the poem was written 500 or five years ago, either. Our earliest ancestors were no doubt fearful and baffled when that first autumn landed upon them, and though scientists have long since explained it to us in detail, the mystery and melancholy remain, sometimes spiraling down to nearly inconsolable grief, however much our rational minds know that spring will come again.
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends
You don’t always need words, either. Sometimes the notes alone, whatever the instrument, can create a mood supremely evocative of a season, a loss, a love, a war, and every other experience and the emotion that we humans inevitably attach to it.
Agnes Obel is a contemporary Danish composer-pianist-singer who is stretching musical boundaries with all manner of layered instrumentation enabled by technology.
The only layering on this piano solo, however, are the layers of emotion she evokes in her ode to September.
All, however, is not lost as “the autumn winds blow chilly and cold.” (That’s a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s beautiful and haunting “April Come She Will,” which is ineligible for our September list of songs since it takes us only through August.)
The renowned band “Earth, Wind & Fire,” led by the irrepressible Maurice White, seemed constitutionally incapable of hitting a somber note, whatever the season. It was always spring or summer in EW&F’s world, with love blooming and the dancing full of, well, fire and verve.
No mournful in-folding here, proving that no matter how dire our situation can sometimes appear to be, better times are always just a shimmy away.
Or, as White had it:
Ba de ya—say do you remember
Ba de ya—dancing in September
Ba de ya—never was a cloudy day
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
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Fall leaf photo by Ian Sane, Portland, Orgeon, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/
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