Pop Culture
May 01, 2023, 06:29AM

When Azaleas Are Fast Asleep

Fleeting and glorious spring moments. What year is it (#286)?

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Just finished Jenny Jackson’s mildly entertaining—marred by too much Brooklyn/wealth product placement and one hopes outdated expressions like “we’re pregnant”—debut novel Pineapple Street, which, for what it’s worth, I’d half-recommend. I was in the middle of a lugubrious section—two characters moaning, once again, about Champagne and vodka hangovers—when I nodded off for a moment, and coming to, imagined a paragraph that wasn’t in the text. It was a lot better, I immodestly thought, but the words disappeared almost immediately.

That instance, which happens occasionally when I’m reading, isn’t dissimilar from the very common muffing of lyrics—for years!—of a pop song. One that stands out for me is Bob Dylan’s zippy “I Want You” from Blonde on Blonde. In one of the stanzas: “The drunken politician leaps/Upon the streets where mothers weep/and the saviors who are fast asleep/They wait for you,” I thought for several years, until corrected by my college roommate in 1973, that the word “saviors” was “azaleas.” Mark poked fun at me, but I preferred the image of azaleas “fast asleep,” even if it wasn’t entirely coherent, but then a lot of Dylan’s “surrealist” writing in the mid-1960s is, in retrospect, kind of off, if still soaring upon listening in 2023. (Which reminds me that for a brief period I looked at covers of Moody Blues records, always high, telling friends at Kropotkin Records that I “saw” hidden images, and brother, the laughter still rings in my ears. I especially liked “Have You Heard, Part I” from 1969’s On the Threshold Of a Dream.) 

But I suspect the slip-up was due to my fascination with the azalea bush, which I’ll take over even the magnificent tulips, flowering dogwoods and daffodils that, for at least a couple of weeks each spring confer fleeting beauty in my North Baltimore neighborhood. (Since 1986, it’s not hard to believe, walking in the early-morning, that you’re an extra in the first scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.)

As an amateur teenage photographer, borrowing my dad’s Minolta, I scooted around Huntington and bugged any number of friends to pose in front of full-bloom , and though I’m not sure why this so captivated me—probably a combo of reefer and a 16-year-old’s natural sense of wonder; or, more prosaically, the result of putting on my first pair of glasses when I felt like I was tripping after walking out of the optician’s office and seeing the colors green, blue and yellow, for example, as the Lord intended—it’s fun to look at the photos so many decades later, have a smoke (tobacco) and fall into a dream.

Pictured above is Ruthe Ann Poma, a good friend at Huntington High School, who gave Russ no fuss in sitting for 15 minutes or so in late-April one year at a locale I can’t pinpoint, although I think it was Halesite (the “hamlet” in Huntington that was named for Revolutionary War hero/martyr Nathan Hale, executed by the British in 1776.). Ruthe was a very pretty young woman back then, and still is today, as we correspond once a year of so, catching up on family, friends and our respective careers. I had a few separate circles of buddies, and Ruthe was part the triumvirate that included Elena Seibert (my closest friend from the old days, along with Howie Nadjari) and Hazel Dunnigan. The mind has holes at my age, 67, more from an accumulation of data than any impairment, thanks very much, and I recall that Betty Odenwald, Sara Joline, Debbie Swain and Elena’s older brother Fred were at least tangentially part of that sphere.

Here's clues to what year it is: Aswan High Dam opens in Egypt; Idi Amin, after coup, becomes president of Uganda; Nasdaq stock index debuts; William Calley (later pardoned) found guilty of 22 murders in My Lai massacre; U.S. ends trade embargo of China; Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is released; John Lennon records and releases Imagine; Rainer Werner Fassbinder writes and directs The Merchant of Four Seasons; Attica prison riot; Walt Disney World opens in Orlando, Florida (Ron DeSantis, not yet born, has no comment); John Sinclair Freedom Rally takes place in Ann Arbor, MI; Clint Eastwood debuts as Harry Callahan in Don Siegel's Dirty Harry; Sofia Coppola is born and King Curtis dies; and Rabbit Redux is published.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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