John Aielli created his daily alchemy of connections with the soul of the city for over 40 years.
By Sherrie Tatum | The Rag Blog | September 15, 2022
This is a story I wrote in 2008 as a memoir assignment for a writing class at St. Edwards University. After the sad news of John Aielli’s death at the end of July 2022, I sent it to a few friends and acquaintances who suggested I share it with the larger community of those in mourning for this treasured Austin presence who enriched our lives for over 50 years.
“So close no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
And nothing else matters . . .”
My stomach knotted up as I recognized the slow, beautiful opening guitar chords of one of my son Chris’ favorite Metallica songs. I had once again awoken with the hope that the last two weeks had been a bad dream, but the music reminded me that it was all true and my beloved 16-year-old son was gone. My entire world had changed utterly, never to be the same again, but a few of the old routines provided comfort. One was listening to John Aielli’s program, Eklektikos on KUT radio, but he had never played heavy metal music before. We had played this very song at the funeral and hearing its tender words this morning seemed to convey a message of solace to my wounded heart.
Since the funeral, I had been listening obsessively to all of Chris’ favorite music tapes. Many a night, unable to sleep, driving around, rewinding Fade to Black, I would find comfort and catharsis in the adolescent anguish:
“Life it seems, will fade away
Drifting further every day
Getting lost within myself
Nothing matters no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free.”
When someone dies you think you will feel sorrow, but mostly all you feel is fear and anger.
“Broken is the promise, betrayal
The healing hand held back by the deepened nail
Follow the god that failed”
Why? What is the purpose of allowing us to feel such fierce love, only to lose it? I was grateful to Metallica for their anger. It was a release. But why was John playing Metallica on his program? I had to find out.
John answered the studio phone himself.
John answered the studio phone himself. It turned out that Mercury was in alignment with Jupiter on this day. It also turned out that John’s young friend Joey had come by with his copy of Metallica’s Black Album. Both of which led to the conclusion that heavy metal was called for on this day. John calmly accepted that of course this conjunction of events would create a meaningful message of comfort for me.
He said, “Isn’t it wonderful how music brings us all together?”
This is just one instance of how John has created his daily alchemy of connections with the soul of the city for over 40 years.
The beginning of my musical journey with John and others had started many years before these events. A late fall evening, Austin 1975, the windows of my little one-room garage apartment are open, the sound coming out of the record player is a sad description of my life at that time:
“Café on, milk gone, such a sad light and fading
You sit in your one room a little brought down in London . . .
You are but a young girl working your way through the phonies, . . .”
Young Girl Blues by Donovan.
I had been listening to Donovan since I was a teenager in Houston, but now I had good reason to have the blues. I was going to have a baby but wasn’t sure if I wanted to marry my boyfriend. I had met David while working at the Main Library at UT. I used to ride my bike to campus, then walk up the magnificent marble staircase to the Humanities Reference Room where I helped students, shelved books, and dreamed under literary quotes painted in gold lettering on high, heavy wooden ceiling beams. I loved my job, but had decided to leave after four years to stay home for the final months of my pregnancy in October and November of 1975. It was during this time that I started to fully appreciate John Aielli’s program. He kept me company while I contemplated the choice between the insecurity of being a single mother or marrying someone I cared about but didn’t love.
Even though faced with a difficult choice, I loved being pregnant.
Even though faced with a difficult choice, I loved being pregnant. Surrounded by sunlight filtered through homemade yellow curtains with blue flowers, my Van Gogh prints, and posters of Oscar Wilde, I felt safe as I nurtured the life within me. John’s program was on from about 8 to 2 in those days, which gave him plenty of time to work his magic. He would often have a theme for the day, such as perhaps Robert Burn’s birthday when he might play a variety of Scottish music interspersed with poetry readings. My own musical tastes tended toward classical, but had been shaped by my upbringing in Houston listening to Elvis on the radio and to my parents’ Frank Sinatra and Dave Brubeck albums. At around the age of 14 or 15 I started buying my own records with babysitting money and listening to them on my parents’ stereo after they had gone to bed. Lighting up a Camel unfiltered, drinking white wine, I was no longer in our suburban living room, but a smoky club in New York. The poetry and music of Dylan, Donovan, and Joan Baez stirred my young imagination and shaped my artistic taste:
“Two pretty babies have I born,
The third lies in my body,
I’d freely part with them every one
If you’d spare the life of Geordie.”
After moving to Austin in the late ’60s, I didn’t have much money for buying albums, so finding a radio station like KUT that played a variety of great music was wonderful. By late 1975 when I was undergoing stressful nights contemplating my future, it was a relief to fall under John Aielli’s magical spell during the long days. He would mix Mozart with Mahalia Jackson, or Maria Callas with Judy Collins. He might read some poetry or do a laid-back interview with a world-famous author such as Martin Amis, or have some local musicians come in and do a performance. Although he played the usual classical music fare such as instrumental pieces by Beethoven and Brahms, he also included a lot of opera and choral music. The heavenly tones of The Tallis Scholars’ Stabat Mater would transport me to an English Renaissance Cathedral and from there to the realms of angels.
“At the Cross Her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping
Oh thou Mother! Font of love!
Touch my spirit from above
Make my heart in thine accord”
It was more than the music though that intrigued me, it was John’s personality.
It was more than the music though that intrigued me, it was John’s personality. He didn’t just play the songs, he commented on them and told stories. You could feel his passion for history, culture, music, and poetry come through in everything he did. There were many days when I felt completely in tune with the mood that John was creating with its ever-changing shifts. His ability to spontaneously choose just the right mixture, each song leading to the next to create a sense of ecstasy, sublime calm, or hilarity always gave me the sense that he was picking up on the wavelength of our lovely city and finding the gold in each moment. I know that not everyone was listening to John’s program all day like I was, so they didn’t always get the full effect of what he was creating, but I often felt a true connection of mind and soul with John through the ether of the radio waves.
He might play the spiritual and orgasmic Le Poeme l’Extase by the Russian composer Scriabin, but how did he know that after that he had to play Leonard Cohen? What else could follow but Joan of Arc’s tale of mystical love and death:
“I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
But must it come so cruel and oh so bright?”
As my due date drew nearer, I was not any nearer to a decision. I went into labor on a Wednesday night and Christopher was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1975. I would have preferred to stay single, but holding my beautiful, sweet baby, I knew that my needs were no longer important. Overcome by a fierce love that surprised me with its intensity, I realized that of course he needed the security of a mom and a dad. David and I got married and shortly thereafter moved to El Paso for his first professional job.
Living in the western-movie atmosphere of this strange landscape was lonely for me, but I always felt quite popular when I took my blonde baby on a walk in his stroller or at the grocery store. I might be taking an item off a shelf when behind me high-pitched voices would exclaim, “Aye, que bonito!” There would be one or two women touching his rosy cheeks to ward off Aojo, the evil eye, after admiring his golden curls and blue eyes. Maybe I should have taken this as a warning that he was a little too bonito to completely avoid Aojo. Playing alone with my pretty, bright baby boy made me long to share those precious moments of Christopher’s early months with family and friends in Austin. I also missed KUT, and the companionship of John’s program. After a couple of years we returned to Austin, and inevitably David and I divorced. Once again, I was living in a cute, little garage apartment, this time behind my sister’s house in Travis Heights. Christopher started attending Montessori school, and I got a job there as the office manager.
The director of the school at that time was a wonderful woman named Geri. She was one of the most capable and enlightened human beings I have ever known. However, she had never listened to KUT. Because we didn’t work directly with the children, I would listen quietly to the radio in my office and I soon had Geri hooked. John continued to introduce me to a huge variety of wonderful music talents such as Dead Can Dance, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Sinead O’Connor, and so many others. Most of the staff and parents of the school had an image of Geri as a wise woman who could handle any crisis with Zen-like calm. She preferred classical and folk to John’s more edgy offerings, but on request Fridays after a long week of dealing with daily crises, even Geri enjoyed a little fun. We were never brave enough to request these songs ourselves, but could usually count on someone else to ask for our two secret favorites on Request Fridays during the 80s: Earth Girls are Easy , and I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid:
“What kind of guy does a lot for me?
A Superman with a lobotomy.”
Some people go to happy hour on Fridays, Geri and I listened to John Aielli rock out to Julie Brown.
I could barely walk to class on that cold morning.
Christopher had just turned five in December of 1980 and I was taking a Shakespeare class at St. Edwards University with the wonderful Dr. Pesoli, when I woke to the tragic headline “John Lennon Shot Dead” in the Austin American Statesman. I could barely walk to class on that cold morning, but was surprised that many of my younger friends didn’t quite get why I was so sad. However, plenty of mourners filled Zilker Park that evening for a sorrowful candlelight vigil full of music and memories.
“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky”
Shortly after this, my brother-in-law Mondo took me to a Sam and Dave concert at a club down on 4th St. There he introduced me to his friend, Raymond Tatum, a well-known local chef. We started dating and were married in 1984 when Christopher was nine. I continued working at the school until Rory was born in 1988. Once again I was a mom at home listening to John Aielli during the long days. Christopher’s dad had also remarried and he spent most of the week with them attending a suburban middle school and the weekends with us in Travis Heights. Christopher was twelve and had his cousin Jesse with him for company at the hospital on the Sunday that Rory was born. As I looked out the window of the recovery room, I could see the wind blowing through the trees on this sunny Sunday in May, and the sound of John Lennon’s Imagine wafted softly across the room from the nurse’s station radio.
“You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”
It was the perfect song for this moment and has truly always been Rory’s song. He has the nature of a integrating them into the larger group. As he and his cousin looked at the baby, relieved that it was a boy, Christopher said, “I’m going to teach him how to be a cool dude.” I knew that meant not only skateboarding, and having the right haircut and shoes, but also listening to heavy metal and learning to play the guitar.
However, it was clear that I must have had some early influence on Rory. One day I heard him babbling softly to himself as he played with a small statuette of Will Rogers. He was just learning how to talk in complete sentences and as he held up the figure he deepened his tone and quietly proclaimed,
“Dis is John A-wee,”
with great reverence and awe.
Whenever Christopher was with us though, we were not listening to classical music, but to his tapes of Metallica, Pantera, Megadeath, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. From an early age, Rory was headbanging in his car seat to such songs as Enter Sandman and it was pretty funny to hear the staccato lyrics of One:
“Landmine has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul . . .”
as my three year old sang along from the back seat.
John always had his finger on the pulse of Austin.
John always had his finger on the pulse of Austin on any given day, playing music that fit with the mood of the city at that moment. This was when Austin was smaller and there was more of a revolutionary and unified spirit. No one would even cut down a tree without holding a city council meeting about it. Later, when we had to fight harder against the developers, John was still a holdout for that old rebellious spirit. I remember the historic meeting in June of 1990, when the city council had scheduled a vote on the proposed obscenely huge Freeport-McMoran development project on pristine land right over the Edwards Aquifer. Over 800 people signed up to speak, and to the credit of the mayor he let everyone who stayed have their turn even though it meant that he and the rest of the council sat and listened until 6 the next morning. Chris was then 14 years-old and initially wasn’t much interested when I turned on live coverage of the meeting early in the evening. However, as the night wore on he became riveted as he and I stood and watched all night. We could not tear ourselves away from the emotional testimony as citizen after citizen spoke to defend their beloved Barton Springs. Every type of Austinite was represented, from lawyers in suits, to Crazy Carl in a bikini. One young musician used his three minutes to play his guitar and sing a song he had composed on the spot. The speaker that struck me the most was an Austin High School student who had worked as a lifeguard at Barton Springs. At first she spoke in a quiet, shaking voice, but she gained confidence as she described diving deep down to the source of the springs and feeling the pulse of the water as it flows continuously out of the earth to fill the pool. She had tears flowing down her cheeks and there was a hush over the crowd as she said,
“That pulse is the heartbeat of the springs and the springs are the heart-beat of Austin. If they are destroyed then Austin will be destroyed.”
During these days of controversy over the fate of development over the Aquifer, John would play songs such as Barton Springs Eternal by Bill Oliver several times a day.
“Austin is a summer city and Barton Springs Eternal
Winter’s short and the Springs are pretty, Barton Springs Eternal
And when it’s warm where do we go to remove most all our clothes
The cleanest, clearest swimming hole, Barton Springs Eternal”
Shortly after this emotional all-night hearing, as I drove past Barton Springs one day, I heard John say,
“This song is dedicated to Louise Epstein.”
To my great glee, and I’m sure many others’ I then heard Marvin Gaye’s I’m Your Puppet:
“Pull the string and I’ll wink at you, I’m your puppet
Your every wish is my command
All you got to do is wiggle your little hand
I’m your puppet, I’m your puppet.”
City council member Louise Epstein had vowed not to be the puppet of developers. However, when the time came, she turned around and voted in favor of the huge Barton Creek Golf Course and subdivision.
‘Mom I’m not going to cut my hair for the rest of high school.’
When Christopher was 14 he moved back in with us. We were then living in a bigger house in the Zilker neighborhood and he had the middle bedroom all set up with his skateboard, guitars, boom box, and posters of James Hetfield. After a week or so at Austin High he announced one day when I picked him up: “Mom I’m not going to cut my hair for the rest of high school.” Of course, that was fine with me and besides, I knew he would need all that hair when he started his own heavy metal band. There’s a photo of him on his thirteenth birthday holding his first electric guitar, his face lit up with quiet joy. Eventually, he and a couple of friends started writing songs together, rehearsing at our house, and I’m glad they had the chance to perform at a friend’s party in Clarksville. By that time he had shortened his name to Chris, but was just as sweet and bonito as he had always been, and although quiet and shy he had many friends who appreciated his loyalty and support. I enjoyed our time together, mostly in the car as I chauffeured him to school or friends’ houses, because those were the times we could talk. He always wanted me to listen to his favorite songs and surprised me with his detailed knowledge of the subtleties of music. Unfortunately such a gentle soul was not long for this world and Chris died suddenly of a heart arrhythmia at the age of 16.
About six months after John Aielli had first played Nothing Else Matters, I was home listening to KUT on a cold and rainy November morning. It was All Soul’s Day, and close to what would have been Chris’ seventeenth birthday. Among the beautiful pieces he had selected, John included a reading of A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, by John Donne. Of course the title made me prick up my ears. In my state I heard it as another message of comfort, in the voice of the great Welsh actor, Richard Burton,
“Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion
Like gold to airy thinness beat”
The images of golden “expansion” and the circle ending where it “begun” held out the promise of reunion on a future All Soul’s Day. I had read this poem before but had never experienced it so profoundly as on that day. This was yet another small miracle and I was grateful for the comfort and the lifting of my spirits. I wrote out a copy of the poem on a card and left it at Chris’ gravesite alongside several notes and photos that had been left by friends.
That is when John’s program was really my saving grace.
At this time I was working for a temp agency as a file clerk at Farmers Insurance. Much as it was difficult to function as a human being while adjusting to my new, painful reality, it was good in some ways to have a mindless job filing paperwork in a huge office. We temps were allowed to listen to the radio on headsets as we worked. Management probably realized that otherwise we all would have been driven mad by the monotony of alphabetizing and filing papers all day. That is when John’s program was really my saving grace. The wonderful variety from Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters, to the Celtic longing of Clanad’s, Wherever you go I will Find You, to the fun of Mojo Nixon’s Elvis is Everybody, Elvis is Everything, . . . “there’s a little bit of Elvis in everybody,” to features such as T. S. Eliot reading Ash Wednesday got me through the boring days. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game had just come out, and the film and the music became another of John’s obsessions as he talked about how great the film was and played the Boy George version of the song sometimes several times a day. My fellow temps of course were listening to more conventional, popular radio stations, but because the movie was so controversial they were also playing the song a lot. My friends all knew that I loved that song, so every time it would come on any station, they would run over and put their headphones on my head so I could hear:
“I know all there is to know about the crying game
I’ve had my share of the crying game . . .”
I benefited from the friendship of my fellow workers, but was dreading the first anniversary of Chris’ death, not sure how I would get through that day. When the day came, my friends were very supportive, but it was still tough. Remembering that John Aielli had played Metallica the year before, I went downstairs during morning break to call him. Once again my hands and voice were shaking as I requested Nothing Else Matters. John was very kind, but said that the station didn’t have a copy of the recording. He had only been able to play it before because his young friend, Joey had brought it in. I was disappointed as I went back upstairs, but was consoled by the thought that my family and I would be joined after work with several of Chris’ friends at the cemetery where we would have a picnic and play Chris’ favorite music.
Shortly after this, I started a new job at my brother-in-law’s chiropractic office as his receptionist. His office was in North Central Austin, very close to the cemetery where Chris is buried. I was fortunate once again to be in a place where I could listen to KUT as I worked. On one of my first days, I had gone home for lunch and as I was driving back turned on the car radio. John was playing the Queen song, Who Wants to Live Forever? For some reason I just knew that he was going to play Metallica after that, and I listened once again with that knotted up feeling in my stomach. Sure enough after a pause, there were the slow, beautiful opening guitar chords of Nothing Else Matters, which came on just as I was driving past the cemetery. When the song was over, as I listened in amazement, John told the whole story on the air of how he had played Metallica right after Chris’ death. He remembered my call, and he even repeated what he had said to me. He said that he was sorry when I had requested the song recently because he didn’t have it. Then he said “I hope that lady is listening now because Joey brought in the recording, that’s why I was able to play it today.” I was feeling so much emotion, it was difficult to concentrate on work after that. Talk about small miracles!
I was thrilled and gratified to hear him actually read the letter out loud on the air!
I wrote a short letter to John Aielli to thank him and to let him know that I had been listening and that the song had come on as I was driving past the cemetery. I included a copy of the obituary in the letter with a beautiful black and white picture of Chris with his long hair. A few days later, I was thrilled and gratified to hear him actually read the letter out loud on the air! He commented on the mysterious coming together of all the events, and how he believes there is no such thing as coincidence. After that he would play Metallica fairly often and dedicate a song to me or he would mention Chris and the whole story of the call and the letter. Of course that meant I was often distracted by the radio, afraid to leave the room in case one of my songs came on. John continued to introduce me to other wonderful music as well, including the Scottish group Silly Wizard, whose eight minute song, The Blackbird induces a trance of intense romantic longing, Lucy Blue Tremblay’s version of The Water is Wide, and Sandy Denny singing the otherworldly Tamlin, which always makes every hair on my head stand on end:
“And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight”
By the time the second anniversary of Chris’ death came around, all of my friends knew the story. When I would run into old acquaintances they would say that they heard me mentioned on John’s program sometimes, or they knew why he would play Metallica on occasion. I wrote a longer letter to John this time, just to let him know how much his program had meant to me over many years. I said that I had “spent many magical days under the influence of Eklektikos.” I loved the range of moods from the sacred to the profane, and that whenever people complained that he had “gone too far” I would think, “John, I love it when you go ‘too far.’” I listed all the musical talents he had introduced me to from The Pogues, to the Tallis Scholars. I also listed some suggestions for songs that I would like to hear on the second anniversary of Chris’ death. This list included a variety of songs by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Metallica. I requested that he choose just one or two and play whatever he thought would fit with his theme of the day. I had taken that day off from work and was nervous as John’s program came closer and closer to the end and he hadn’t played any of the songs. Then at the end of the program, he read the letter on the air and played every song that I had requested, even going past two o’clock! I sat on the floor with my radio on my lap just overcome with so many emotions at once. Shortly after the program, Chris’ Uncle Mondo called, also overcome by emotion and gratitude that John would pay such a tribute to Chris.
Once when my friend Angela, who at that time hadn’t lived in Austin very long, told me that she didn’t really like Eklektikos, I was surprised by how hurt I felt. I said “Oh, but I have to tell you my John Aielli stories.” Of course I had heard all the complaints over the years. Some people didn’t like that he put the microphone too close to his mouth, or that he played too much opera, or that he frequently left long poignant seconds of dead air space. I worried at these times, thinking, can’t he get fired for that? Sometimes he would play a song several times in a row. But I loved all his quirks. When he discovered Queen, which was about 20 years after everyone else discovered Queen, he would play Bohemian Rhapsody several times a day. Once he played it eight times in a row.
I thought back over all the wonderful moments that Austin has shared as a community.
When I thought of how to answer Angela’s objections, I thought back over all the wonderful moments year after year that Austin has shared as a community. For instance all the Christmas programs that put us in the spirit of the season. When other stations are playing nothing but insipid clichés, who else but John would put on Jackson Browne singing The Rebel Jesus with its seditious message:
“. . . once a year when Christmas comes
we give to our relations
and perhaps we give a little to the poor
if the generosity should seize us
but if any one of us should interfere
in the business of why they are poor
they get the same as the rebel Jesus.”
Who else would play Walking Round in Women’s Underwear to the tune of Walking in a Winter Wonderland:
“In the office there’s a guy named Melvin.
He pretends that I am Murphy Brown.
He’ll say ‘Are you ready?’
I’ll say ‘Whoa man! Let’s wait until the wife is out of town.’”
On the more sentimental side there is Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutchen, which always reduces me to tears with its depiction of the true story of the Christmas truce of 1914:
“Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore . . .”
I frequently have a sense of a communal experience as I picture many individuals in our city laughing or crying in these shared moments.
These stories only touch the tip of the iceberg.
After listening to KUT for over 35 years, these stories only touch the tip of the iceberg of all the memories and connections forged over all the moments and days. A lot of things have changed in Austin and in our lives but there is a continuity to it all. Now at the age of 19, Rory works at the Montessori school that he and Chris attended. When I see how gentle he is and how much he enjoys interacting with the children, I can’t help but think that Chris is still teaching his little brother to be a “cool dude.” Now John’s program has been cut to three hours a day so he doesn’t have time to get into the long themes that used to carry me through the days. However, he still manages to touch my heart and stimulate my mind. And, I still tell newcomers to Austin, “Hey, you have to hear my John Aielli stories . . .”
Recent memorable shows include the day we learned of Lady Bird’s death and he played Wild Bluebonnets and Death Cab for Cutie’s touching I Will Follow you Into the Dark:
“Love of mine, someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark . . .
If there’s no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark”
This past November John had his own tragedy in the loss of his younger brother.
This past November, close to what would have been Chris’ 32nd birthday, John had his own tragedy in the loss of his younger brother. He didn’t say anything on air that day, but he played Iron and Wine’s haunting Dead Man’s Will:
“Give this stone to my brother
‘cause we found it playing in the barnyard
Many years ago
Give this bone to my father
He’ll remember hunting in the hills
When I was ten years old . . .
Give this string to my mother
It pulled the baby teeth she keeps inside the drawer
. . . May my love reach you all . . .”
I gave a copy of that CD to Chris’ dad, David, at the annual bonfire we still have out at his house in honor of Chris’ birthday.
The process of writing down all these memories makes me realize that my very being is composed of many of these musical moments with John which cannot be separated from the significant events of my life. I’m sure there are many other people in Austin, who, if they thought back, could tell their own John Aielli stories. I know that John will reach retirement age in a few years, and I hope Austin will remember all that he has done to help create our unique community. I am grateful that my Austin story has been shaped in part by the magical influence of his music.
I seldom call the station these days and haven’t written a letter lately, but am reminded frequently that John and I are still very much connected through the ether. Just a few weeks ago, John was playing universe songs in celebration of Edwin Hubble’s birthday. I thought, “Oh he has to play Donovan’s song of cosmic love through space travel, The Voyage of the Moon:
“And there will come a time, my love,
Oh may it be in mine, my love,
When men will proudly rise, my love
And board to sail the skies
Moonships from all the spheres
Moonships from all the spheres . . .”
I tried a couple of times to call, but couldn’t get through. A few minutes later he played two Donovan songs, and I thought, You see, I don’t even really need to call.
Other favorite memories that I can’t leave out include John’s deep reverence for November 11th. I always look forward to John’s “Eleven,” eleven programs every year since he shares my veneration for the music and poetry that came out of the sorrow and the pity of losing an entire generation of young men. John usually includes The Pogues heart-rending version of And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,
“So they collected the cripples, the wounded and maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The legless, the armless, the blind and insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity”
He might also play readings by favorite Great War poets such as Rupert Brooke, or Wilfred Owen’s Greater Love:
“Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude”
Of course interspersed with the solemnity are snippets of absurdity. To this day Rory will look at me sometimes and ask in an ominous tone, “Do you know how many time zones there are in the Soviet Union?” The only answer to that is,
“Eleven, there are eleven . . .”
The process of writing all this has brought up many more musical memories, especially of now beloved “Indie” bands first introduced to my attention by John, but too numerous to mention. As John once said, “We’re all in a Death Cab, no matter how Cute we are.” Now I will close with just one more fondly remembered interaction with John.
When Rory was in a production of Twelfth Night at LBJ High School, I called John to request the song Sweet, Sweet Viola by the Austin band Ten Speed, which of course I had first heard on Eklektikos. It tells the entire story of Twelfth Night, with every romantic twist and hilarious turn in sweet and funny detail. John answered excitedly, “Oh, they have to hear that!” He then said, “Okay, be ready, I’m going to play it twice so you can record it.” It was funny to think of the entire listening audience being subjected to this quirky little ditty, not once, but twice just for the benefit of one listener, but that was Austin in those days and it was golden,
“Sweet, sweet Viola,
Sweet, sweet Viola
Laying down your lov
For four hundred years
Four hundred years
Of laying down your love”
And to you Dearest John, “If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it.”
[Sherrie Tatum grew up in Houston and moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas in 1969. Over the years in this lovely city she has been a mother, librarian, dancer, and teacher. She recently completed her masters degree at St. Edwards University and has been writing a book about a Houston friend who died in the Jonestown, Guyana tragedy.]