Among my favorite summer activities is sitting by a campfire in my yard. My firepit backs up against several acres of woods and offers views over the house of the Big Dipper, North Star, and even the edge of the Milky Way on dark nights.
I usually have music accompanying me, though I try to remember to take a break and listen to the barred owls hooting, the fir crackling, and other, unexplained rustling in the dry leaves.
When my fire-making switches to the inside woodstove, I usually lament how few times I’ve indulged this summer ritual, one I tend to enjoy in solitude.
The recording, released in 1972, shivers with anarchic energy…
I was reminded of another fireside gathering a few years ago at a Belfast waterfront pub with a beer garden that features an outside fireplace. Several of my journalist friends had met and as we sat beside the fire, stories began to flow.
Most were funny and well-told. The tale I offered was, well, moving to me, and I’m still not sure I can articulate its import. But here it is.
My first two years of college at Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y. had me commuting from home. This was 1977, 1978. My radio habits had migrated from New York City commercial stations to college and smaller, hipper outlets, each with its own flavor.
A song that one of those stations would play regularly was “On The Road: The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty,” by folk duo Aztec Two-Step. The group’s name came from a line by “beat” poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and of course Dean Moriarty was the fictional name for Neal Cassady in Jack Kerouac’s landmark novel On The Road.
The recording, released in 1972, shivers with anarchic energy, even though its instrumentation was acoustic guitars, bongos, and a banjo, among others. I had yet to read Kerouac, but being an English major, I knew something about the beat writers and their work thrilled and excited me.
The song’s lyrics include this:
Well, he may ride down the road at a hundred and ten
Exclaiming his thoughts about prisons and men
He may tell you his dream, maybe something obscene
You can swear you’ve been through it but you don’t know just when
He’s like the dancing gold prairies that will never be mowed
Or the wind in the sail that’s about to explode
He’s like fire and rain, bringing pleasure and pain
And he learned all he knows from the ways of the road
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s, and we’re living in Maine. Aztec Two-Step played in Camden, Ellsworth, Portland, and Belfast, and we would see them half a dozen times in those years.
At a show in Belfast, Rex Fowler, the principal songwriter and singer, told the story about how he came to write “On The Road” and its Belfast connection.
Fowler was growing up in Pittsfield and at loose ends as he contemplated his future. The town’s pharmacist, Nelson Wight, had gotten to know Fowler and challenged him to do something, perhaps creative, with his life.
And he gave him a copy of On The Road.
Hearing the song on the radio on my commute, I must have been about the same age as Fowler was when he recorded it. When I got around to reading the novel in my mid-20s, it rocked my world. It was as if the frenetic be-bop vibe of the story’s universe were injected in my veins. Being married with a young child—whom we named Cassedy for the Grateful Dead’s song “Cassidy,” which I later learned was written about Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarty)—I somehow resisted the urge to hop a westbound freight train.
And here is where the story comes home. Nelson Wight has lived around the corner from our home for the last 25 years. While at the Bangor Daily News, I interviewed Fowler about an upcoming show and asked if I had the details of the genesis of “On The Road” correct. I had.
At the wedding of Wight’s grandson to another neighbor a few years back, I told him the story of how his sharing a book launched a life in music. He nodded and smiled slightly. In early July, Nelson Wight died at the age of 90.
Does my story have a point? If it does, I suppose it’s that music and literature matter, and that we humans have the capacity to impact each other’s lives in profound ways.
Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.