Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Farewell, Space Captain (1944-2014)

About 7-8 years ago, back when my children were one and two, I started making  CDs for them, for car trips  and the little disc players in their room.  They had their Dan Zaneses and their  They Might Be Giants, and that was fine,  but I also wanted for them to start getting to know the canon a bit, songs that would be both palatable to them and pleasing to me, and that would start laying the groundwork, in their ears, for all the good music choices to come.

For the first CD, I chose a bunch of songs that I thought had soul but that were also clear – there was a lot of Sam Cooke, for instance – clarity being fairly important to the developing ear.  I understood that, which is also why I understood that probably the most questionable pick on that first CD was Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain” – the live version from Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Questionable but never in doubt. Joe Cocker is one of a handful of musicians whom I really cannot imagine my life without. I don’t  want to feel compelled by yesterday’s news to go into some over-wrought explanation of why this might be or what makes him special, just acknowledge the fact that I did more than just like Joe Cocker when I was growing up. I kind of adopted him, the way you adopt a favorite baseball player. I chose him to be mine and part of who I was, and I’ll even briefly digress into remembering the first time I ever heard him because I just thought of it. I must have been fifteen. It was fall of sophomore year – high school -- and there were a bunch of us in the bedroom of a friend named Betsy Moss, whom I actually didn’t know all that well. She was a senior and a wonderful, charismatic person, but probably the only reason I’m remembering her name today is because I was in her living room when I first heard Joe Cocker. I’m not even sure which song caught my attention. I think it was more the whole string of them, and me turning to the speaker and thinking to myself, “Who is this? What is this? And how can I have more of this around me?” I probably bought my first record that same day.

So ever since then I’ve kind of delusionally considered Joe to have been one of my best friends and mentors (and mind you, this was long before I wound up having his hair situation). Far less delusionally I consider a handful of his recording to be among my best friends -- “Feelin’ Alright” obviously, (just two years after that brief encounter in Betsy Moss’s apartment I was the singer in a band that played ”Feelin’ Alright” -- Johnny Simplex and the Incurables, we were called), “Darling Be Home Soon,” Something in the Way She Moves," “A Little Help From My Friends,” “Bye Bye Blackbird.” There’s a whole bunch of his songs that are definitely imprinted somewhere in the hardened wax tablet of my soul.

But if forced to pick and absolute #1 favorite, I think I’d have to go with “Space Captain.”

In fact, “Space Captain” actually belongs in its own category – and there’s really only one other piece of music that comes to mind as belonging anywhere near it , and that would be the second side of The Wild, the Innocent and E Street Shuffle. And what they have in common is that most special and magical power of being able to profoundly change my mood whenever I hear them. Now obviously, a lot of music can do that if you time it right. That’s the whole reason we listen to it in the first place, yes? The difference with “Space Captain” (and the Springsteen) is that they could be counted on to change my mood. That is, I recognized fairly early on in our relationship that I could even kind of abuse the power of "Space Captain" – that is, go to it for the express purpose of changing my mood – and it would still do so, take me from wherever I was – more than likely some sullen adolescent funk or ballad-of-the-sad-young-man blue -- and five minutes later leave me feeling just very happy and exhausted and cleansed and celebratory. Blessed, really, and at one with my fellow man and the universe.

Every time.


So that’s why there was really no question in my mind that even as messy and ridiculous and completely out-of-control  and “Space Captain” may be -- like a bouncy house in a tilt-a-whirl during certain parts – I still wanted my kids to hear it the earliest possible opportunity.  And often.  So it came to reside on the little CD that I very coercively titled “Theo’s favs #1” in big black magic marker – tucked somewhere in between the Sam Cookes and the Harry Belafontes. As I say, they’re all  good songs, but the moment I’m remembering here today is the day my son came to me, and I don’t even remember how he put it – he was two at the time, but a fairly articulate two. He probably just asked for the “wooh….ahhhh” song – but I understood that he was talking about “Space Captain,” and can’t really express to you how proud I was – of myself, I mean – and relieved and gratified and at peace. I remember thinking to myself, completely without irony, “ah, yes, my work here is done.” Because it was. Because I just don’t think you can go that far wrong in life if you like “Space Captain.”

So everlasting thanks to you, Joe -- from me and mine -- on this, the day you remembered you can fly.

(Speaking of which, for anyone who wants to click below and listen along, I'll append the lyrics, which any fan of Joe will tell you, aren’t always that clear to the naked ear. It’s a bit of a cheat having them served up so legibly, but as you will see, they’re not incidental to the power of the track, or the voice carrying them, or the moment at hand.)

Space Captain (by Mathew Moore)

Once while traveling across the sky
This lovely planet caught my eye
And being curious I flew close by
And non I'm caught here
Until I die
Until we die
Learning to live together
Till we die

I lost my memory of where I'd been
We all forgot that we could fly
Someday we'll all change into peaceful man
And we'll return then to the sky
Until we die
Until we die
We’re just Learning to live together
Till we die...