Starting with a Song: Big Dipper

I’m going to try something new today, I will start with a song and see where it leads me. My goal will be to get back to the song by the end of my rambling. I will not edit or make corrections while composing. So here it goes…

Cracker’s song Big Dipper is a song I have been listening to a lot lately. It is my favorite Cracker song of all time, for right now. There is a melancholy aspect to it that I really like, the primary instrument is a piano, but there seems to be a slide guitar hiding in the background giving the whole song a very strange sound. The song turns at one point and John Hickman (lead singer) sings about a brother of Jack Kerouac calling him a lucky bastard.

Now Kerouac isn’t someone who I would call a lucky bastard. The leader of the Beat Generations road novels doesn’t seem that lucky to me. I have been reading Dharma Bums lately. I haven’t formed any real opinions about whether I really like the novel or not, but I have been a big fan of Gary Snyder‘s poetry for a long time. Snyder is portrayed by Kerouac in the novel as a small Dharma Bum who takes him on a long hike to the top of a mountain. I do believe that Snyder is probably like the man portrayed in the novel, but I like Snyder’s poetry better than I like his portrayal in the novel. If that makes sense. Snyder’s poetry has just the right amount of rebellion and nature for me.

I wrote a letter to Snyder at one point in my life. I never sent the letter. I am not one for too many overt hero worshipping moments, but I thought poets probably don’t get many fan letters. I knew that Snyder was teaching poetry at Cal Davis and that he lived in the mountains in a stone house he built himself. I don’t know if the whole house was made of stone, but that is how I imaged the house. Like a cave, but cool and with a dinning room table and windows. I guess that says more about who I am than Snyder, but I never sent the letter.

Two years ago, when I was taking a writing class from Pam Houston, who also teaches at Cal Davis, I asked her if she ever met Snyder. She had, and then I did a weird bit of creepy hero worshipping. I guess telling one writer how much you like another writer is like telling a girl how beautiful her friend is. But like most men, I only know how stupid I am being about four hours later. Anyway, Houston did say that Snyder was a nice man, but he was no longer teaching. I don’t know why I was disappointed, it isn’t like I was going to fly down to Davis to take a class, but I was sad to think that he might be holed up in his stone house drinking tea and making ax handles.

This year I went to see Pam Houston and Cheryl Strayed do a reading in Port Angeles, Washington. Houston is one of those writers who is great to see read. Her sense of humor and condensed stories make her material perfect for a reading. She charmed the packed audience and sold out her latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, at the reading. Each of her 144 stories has an element of humor, but what I liked best about the novel is the puzzle quality of the stories, they fit together and tell a story, but it is not a traditional novel built on a plot. The one thing I thought was really interesting was that Houston read before Strayed. Houston was the more established writer, but Strayed’s novel Wild was the New York Times best seller at the time.

When Strayed read she was as warm and caring as I expected. Having a novel take off and become a best seller is probably a mind bending experience, but Strayed did not put on airs. She talked for a little bit, read from Wild and then took out a book that she had just released, Dear Sugar. The Dear Sugar book is a collection from her online advice column. She said that she started the column with the focus of “radical empathy.” I bought the book that evening and have been reading a letter a day since then, the letters a often heart wrenching and sad, but Strayed’s advice is so insightful and wise it is hard to believe that she isn’t sitting atop a mountain in the Himalayas. There are times she takes her writers over her metaphoric knee and gives them a good spanking, but most often she deals with the brokenness of the human condition with such compassion that it gets me a bit weepy. (Yeah, I am a crybaby, so what.)

When I had Strayed sign my copy of Wild I told her I only cried twice while reading the book. She guessed that I cried about the horse, which wasn’t the case, not a huge horse fan, but I told her that the part about Crater Lake really got me. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t give it away, but it is a beautiful metaphor for turning life’s challenges into something wondrous.

Which brings me back to where I started, Big Dipper. What I like best about Cracker is the skillfully written lyrics. Hickman, in my opinion, is one of the great song writers of today. I first fell in love with his songs back when he was leading Camper Van Beethoven. When I Win the Lottery is still one of the best songs ever written. Big Dipper is wonderful because the song is so personal. Is he really sitting on a cafe steps watching all the girls walk by? Is he really in love with a girl who is in love with someone else? I don’t know where the song is set, but I picture it being Berkley. The same Berkley where the Dharma Bums live and where it is a short day trip to the mountains where you can see Monterey and think about San Jose even though it isn’t that pleasant.

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