Once, listening to the tune on a bad day, I felt waves of nostalgia sweeping over me like nausea: The feeling was that physical, that irresistible. It was too much. I dug something the poet Robert Hass once said out of the back of my mind, trying to make sense of the moment. Hass was describing himself as a child, discovering a poem by Wallace Stevens: “It made me swoon, and made me understand what the word ‘swoon’ meant. It was the first physical sensation of the truthfulness of a thing that I had ever felt.” “Real Love” felt like that–just like that–just like Hass saying he read the Stevens poem again and again, “exactly the way I lined up for a roller-coaster ride with a dime tight in my fist.” But nostalgia is something like a yearning for that first time, isn’t it? A yearning for something that you probably never experienced, a sentimentalized false memory. Hass was talking about discovery–isn’t nostalgia the opposite? Isn’t it worse: a taste for discovery in ruins, an emotional decadence, the refuge of a crippled soul or an impoverished heart? Hass spoke proudly; isn’t nostalgia embarrassing?
I found myself trying to fight off the truthfulness of “Real Love.” There were some ugly facts behind the doors it opened. As I listened, the historical abstraction of what was lost when that twisted cretin Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon became as immediate as responding to heat or cold. Somehow, the song distilled the purest sense of Beatles–the whole new world so many people thought they believed they were living in when the Beatles ruled their lives, or when the Beatles simply ruled their own, if they ever really did. This is where nostalgia takes you, into never-never land. But no feeling as strong as the feeling loaded into “Real Love” can be trifled with. Embarrassment in the face of a song is the reaction of someone afraid to say what he or she loves, which changes easily into the willingness to like what you’re supposed to like, to do what you’re told. I began thinking about a conversation I’d had some months before with David Thomas, behemoth singer for the great punk band Pere Ubu.
We were backstage at a performance festival called Crossing Border, in The Hague, talking about the old Carter Family song “Worried Man Blues” (just reissued, as it happens, on a Rounder CD of the same name). We talked about the mystery of the song, the way the rhythm contained a sense of fate. We talked like fans, our faces bright. But then Thomas hesitated over a word, and his face clouded under his tilted fedora. “I was about to say where I first heard that song,” he said. “But I’m too embarrassed.” “Don’t be embarrassed,” I said. “I know exactly where you heard it. You heard it the same place I heard it. You heard it on the radio in 1959, when it was a hit for the Kingston Trio.” Easy for me to say; I hadn’t brought up whom we’d both first heard do the song.
Some time after that, I was walking through my local record store, and a little box caught my eye: The Kingston Trio—the Capitol Years, four CDs. I’d picked up a Kingston Trio best-of a while back for research, played it, found it dull as dust, and didn’t regret getting rid of all my Kingston Trio albums twenty or thirty years ago. But now this thing in the store was working on me like a magnet. For a couple of weeks, I found myself drawn to its rack, and every time I passed it by, I wondered how long I was going to be able to resist–altogether, four passes, I think. I bought it, took it home, and played all one-hundred-and-seven cuts straight through.
It was the oddest experience I’d had in a long time: a removal, a going back, a displacement. The Kingston Trio were huge in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a collegiate folk trio that remade the pop landscape. Their first record, “Tom Dooley,” a version of a nineteenth-century Kentucky murder ballad, had the same effect on hearts and minds in 1958 that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Nevermind did in 1991. Instantly, across the country, people had to hear it again. They wondered what it was. They wondered why what had been their favorite songs the day before now sounded tired and fake.
The Kingston Trio box was like a time machine–a time machine that, like “Real Love,” went to an unreal place with real dates: 1960, 1961, 1962. The glamour of JFK’s New Frontier and its phoniness were both in the music, all blamelessly. Like the unreal Beatles song, there was the delicious feeling of floating in an overwhelmingly familiar world, a world where all illusions were served like kings. This was a time when white people, madras shirts, and good intentions could conquer the world. As the songs rolled by, the phoniness of the music rose to the top, and turned into a crust; the crust broke, and far beneath the surface you could hear wish and regret: real people. Then they vanished, and again nostalgia ruled: the desire to reach back and touch the perfect person you never were.
It can be hard, listening to music that sounds so innocent and playful on the surface, because the more deeply the well of nostalgia is plumbed, the more intense one’s feelings of loss will become, and the listener will be stranded, caught between the embarrassment of mourning the loss of things that never existed and the embarrassment of finding that wounds that should have closed long ago are still open. “Real Love” and the Kingston Trio set are about times of enthusiasm that may have prepared the ground for murder. The records ask a strange question: What produced your deepest reaction, “Tom Dooley” or the assassination of John F. Kennedy? “Eight Days a Week” or John Lennon’s death? And if nostalgia is about deep feeling, what is it that you’re truly nostalgic for?
Interview, June 1996
Also published in Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, 2001