Sailing Sounds Like This by Christopher Vondracek
Sailing Sounds Like This
I heard NPR’s All Things Considered host Melissa Block interview Todd Snider, a musician, about a favorite “song of summer,” and he said what I thought he’d say.
“Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl,” from the New England bar band, The Looking Glass.
The fuzzy AM radio, his parents’ backyard with burgers on the grill and a hose filling a plastic pool, Snider said the song “transported” him to childhood.
“There’s a point on a western bay / serving ships a hundred miles away / Lonely sailors pass the time away / and talk about their home.”
“I miss this time in America,” Snider said.
I never knew it.
A Pleistoscenic sea once covered the American Upper Midwest. Skeletons of lizard fish emerge in the limestone of western South Dakota. Last week I tried on a tropical shirt in the Sun Ray thrift store off the interstate in St. Paul. The day before, the poet Gretchen Marquette and I emerged with Café Breves under a steel sky and felt the pathetic fallacy swell beneath our puddle-slapping boots.
“The wind is cutting,” she said.
“Everything’s so ominous.”
I am still looking for the sea.
Toni Morrison says, “Truly landlocked people know they are.”
Maybe this explains yacht rock. Blue-eyed soul. Soft jams. Music from the 1970s and 80s from pop stars like Steely Dan, Rupert Holmes, Ambrosia. I love it, fixating on its vibe, its suave.
But am I susceptible to it? I sometimes think I should be listening to country songs, songs about belt buckles, sexy tractors, and diesel pick-ups.
But have you heard Paul Davis’ “Cool Nights?”
Yesterday I drove past Atlantic, Iowa, named for being halfway between America’s two oceans. Apparently, railroad officials flipped a coin, figuring out which name to bestow upon the grove of trees.
I have been far from the ocean my whole life.
Some people, though, want to insinuate we’ve already had the yacht rock resurgence.
Rolling Stone called “Yacht Rock,” an indie YouTube comedy series, “a reimagining of a bygone soft-rock renaissance, courtesy of hipsters with fake mustaches, impeccable record collections and a love of smoothness.” Michael McDonald appeared on a song from Brooklyn bands, Holy Ghost! and Grizzly Bear. Daryl Hall used to invite friends to perform Hall & Oates cuts on his internet series, Daryl’s House.
But that was a while ago.
Last week I watched a YouTube video with Elliott Lurie, who put out two albums with Looking Glass. It’s from an animal rescue benefit concert in a cabana-style bar in Malibu in which an older Lurie says, “I think this song has named a lot of pets over the years.”
It didn’t seem as cool. He used fake horns played on a keyboard. He sounded flat. In the background, I listened for the waves.
Before I hit 30, I’d only seen the sea thrice: at 23, in Ireland; at 20, in New York City; and at 6, in Florida. For a while, I counted Seattle, but this was just the Puget Sound. Someone said they still had whales, which is what confused me.
My initial traipse into the sea was inauspicious. On a beach in Florida, I took a giant wave to the face and sat on the beach wrapped in a towel, my aunt letting me sip from her Diet Coke.
But I remembered the grandeur.
For awhile, in response, I had a bad habit of imagining topography to fit my enlarged, disquieted sense of the world.
On our lake in northern Minnesota, I’d blot out the sky with my hands, like the director Martin Scorsece framing a shot, seeing white and grey mountains rising behind our lake. Or I’d envision a rushing river cutting through an open field.
Dad encouraged this, indirectly. On a notepad in the cabin’s wooden table, he wrote terse, telegraphic diary entries to the family cabin’s next visitors.
“Hot as hell this week.”
“Had to replace the trolling motor. Lost at sea.”
“The lake was angry today.”
Down on the dock, wind feathering through the White Earth reservation, scuffing the water into foamy knuckles, I stood cloaked in dripping towel on our dock, the neighbor’s pontoon slapping the surface, in the sound of a that, that, that thiissss, that, that, that, thiissss.
Once at the Bemidji Wal-Mart, I saw seagulls tossing a plastic bag back-and-forth, crying out…
It’s only later, though, I’d realized I perhaps was missing something, a gnawing absence in my field of experiences. See, at 23, when I reached Inishmore off the west coast of Ireland and saw the flat blue rectangle rising to an undefined horizon, the furthest western point between Europe and Boston, when I saw the sea, it was then I remember thinking, why would anyone live anywhere but near the ocean?
On the boat-ride back to Doolin, while the waves sloshed my ferry into the air, the radio played—with its muted horns, smooth vocals, and tidy hi-hat—Van Morrison’s “Days Like This.”
In yacht rock, I’ve found a language for the landlocked.
Steely Dan, Robbie Dupree, Christopher Cross. These artists and their music is as smooth as my imaginary sea. Do people who live within 100 miles of a meaningful shoreline like this music, though?
I grew up in southern Minnesota 100 miles from a meaningful shoreline (the Mississippi River). Our nearest lake choked in algae blooms and shimmered with the upturned white bellies of dead fish.
Once I had the audacity to tweet, “Sperry’s are the Thinking Man’s Boat Shoes.”
This misnomer could happen because “yacht” was never a financial adjective to me, only aesthetic. Our rich kids on the plains drove 4-wheelers, not catamarans. In effect, what interested me wasn’t the prosody of yacht rock, but its cultural geography: apricot melodies, falsetto singers in Canadian tuxedos backed by tinny, percussive stamps suggesting the slightest drawstrings of disco. Songs carried the gyrations of waves scuttling boats, while shaded strangers lounge in linen spurt across a crystal clear bay, in view of distant, hoary cliffs.
Sure I liked it sometimes on-the-nose, such as The Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor,” Cross’ “Sailing,” and Rupert Holmes’ “If You Like Piña Coladas.” But the stern, the pulleys, the jib, the canvas taught into leeward winds, the blurry rocky Maine coast hoisting a lighthouse is also found there in timbre and sonic elocution, in mood, like Andy Gold’s “Lonely Boy,” Stephen Bishop’s “On and On,” or Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” These songs turn like the wheel on smooth chromatics, trochaic downbeats, lyrically whimsical, falsetto melodies sung by diamond-eyed singers as gentle as the boat disappearing into the ether of the horizon line. I see this like I see Quint’s boat, The Orca, in Jaws, lonely men in tiny little kitchens, floating, with bottles of beer in rough hands, netting on the walls, metastasizing their woe.
Geographically I should’ve been listening to John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, especially that title, track. “Rain on the scarecrowd / blood on the plow!” But I knew people in Mellencamp’s 1985 opus maybe better than he did. This music never made me wonder. It never had pathos, loss.
And it’s not as if the sea is more tragic than the fields. On “farm safety day” in the fall, FFA (Future Farmers of America) kids covered straw dummies in loose-fitting flannel, set them in the path of runaway John Deere tractors, or chucked them into vacuum of a grain auger to show us what happens when we don’t button up around farm machinery. My fifth grade teacher talked about the man she once loved before her husband killed by a train coming home from the fields.
She was driving behind him and saw the twisted steel and shattered glass.
“She could feel the ocean fall and rise, its rage and glory.”
But knowing this land—the Coteau des Prairies or Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota, the foreclosed farms and bearded pig farmers and dusy combine seasons—has prevented its sonic elegies from mythologizing in my head.
Instead, I followed disco, bright lights about shimmery cakewalks in translucent cities. Or the music of a leisure class, a separate anxiety I’d never know.
Also, I think I became a man when I discovered the major-seventh on the piano.
The night in high school I bought a CD with “Brandy” on it, America’s top song for one week in late August, 1972, I drove home from the Wal-Mart in Albert Lea, Minnesota, sailing like a speedboat over the cracked county highways, zipping on S-curves around cornfields, lights from the combine lit-up like the spots docked atop barges or shipping vessels.
In theory, yacht rock, which is really just a pejorative term for “soft rock,” should resist reference points for continental folk. The writer Nick Flynn told a dinner table in St. Paul he couldn’t imagine understanding Moby-Dick without a proper relationship to the sea, and I stammered out something about the whiteness of the whale before my thesis advisor—from Michigan—told us she never understood the prairie-to-ocean analogy. I was sinking.
But then, a glimmer.
“I didn’t know the Mississippi ran through Minnesota,” Flynn said.
And I thought, see, see!
But it’s true.
How does this music talk of the sea to people who’ve never been?
And I’m not a synesthete, but I believe the translation is understood, similarly. I feel yacht rock more because my absence of the ocean, like tasting the color red, only possible because there is no taste of the color red, and thus whatever taste I hold in my mouth when I imagine tasting the color red is far more spectacularly imagined. The same goes with thesounds of swirl, tempest, and turgid waters, of Cayman beechwood and unbuttoned blouses and Borsalino hats, arrested in me by songful emotions that aren’t limited or “checked” by realities, such as jerks from school who wore unironic boat shoes or talked about summers on the Cape.
But I also shouldn’t pretend this avoidance of the sea hasn’t come without consequences, without its own payment.
For starters, there’s linguistic damage.
On the prairie, we call things that don’t belong to the sea, in fact, oceanic. Early white adventurers described a wave-like movement of the tall grass, blushing in the wind. My ancestors rode the land on “prairie schooners.” Now, along the river, they throw around the word “port” indelicately, as though the stopping-off-point for the barges carrying scrap metal needs romantic rhetoric.
As a child, a friend went to the ocean and came back with a large red welt on her forearm.
“A Portuguese Man-of-War…” she said. “Bit me. It’s a jellyfish. I nearly died.”
I just didn’t understand.
In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, jellyfish played the marimba.
Finally at 17, I visited the Shell Aquarium in Chicago on a marching band trip, amazed to discover sea horses are microscopic, not saddle-able, coming up to at least my chest, ridden by mer-people with long waving hair hoisting spears. They’re beautiful, complicated insects.
When you miss the sea, when you lack its proportions, you start allowing yourself to imagine more is possible in the world than really is.
In college I interviewed a man who dug up dinosaur bones on a South Dakota reservation who told me he didn’t believe dinosaurs existed, that the world was only 6,000 years old.
“But you’re holding the femur,” I said, “of a dinosaur!”
“God put those bones there simply to busy people like me,” he responded.
This kind of stuff makes sense when you don’t grow up near the ocean. You think God can do this. But God can’t do this. Or He wouldn’t do this. He was too busy building the sea.
Toni Morrison writes, “Once the people of the lake region discover this, the longing to leave becomes acute, and a break from the area, therefore, is necessarily dream-bitten, but necessary nonetheless.”
But I have not been able to leave. I have been stuck here on the prairie since childhood, since birth.
So have my parents. Maybe they’re to blame. They’re the ones who listened to the jazz-referential songwriting and college-educated sounds of the blue-eyed soul heroes, such as Billy Joel and Jackson Browne and Boz Scaggs. At night, I’d fall asleep to James Taylor records playing in the basement. These artists aren’t cornerstones of the yacht rock movement, but the sonic DNA—tons of treble, layers of harmonies (America, anyone?), and walk-away lyricism about giving up or giving in. Can we see now what fruition was brought by Robbie Dupree in “Steal Away?”
My father is now retired from teaching band and is principal at a Catholic School, serving the parish of St. Canice in Kilkenny, Minnesota. Last fall we ate at the harvest dinner at St. Canice. Walking into the dinner, Mom said, “Canice was patron saint of the shipwrecked.”
The settlers from Ireland landed in Minnesota and knew they’d never leave, so they brought their gods with them. It was breathtaking. On the way in, we’d passed a small lake surrounded by a cornfield and a few shelter belts. In town, a black-and-silver-haired woman stood next to an Irish bar, smoking a cigarette in her maroon-and-camouflage jacket. She’d walked to a steel-siding building to grab a bag of fried chicken and Styrofoam cup of mashed potatoes and walk back. Her hair—like my mother’s—was Irish. Thick, black, turning grey. Hair tough for whipping winds on coasts, genetics of geography still lingering.
Christopher Cross’s father grew up in South Dakota. Cross is the Harper Lee of the yacht-rock era, the reclusive everyman thrust into the limelight who delivers one smashingly successful work then retires. Cross had a couple, I suppose. His debut record, 1980’s Sailing, was a mega-hit. The album produced top-20 hits such as “Ride Like the Wind,” “Sailing,” and his second album, Another Page, came out in 1983 put out “Think of Laura.” In between he had the Oscar-winning song, “Arthur’s Theme.”
The lyrics for his biggest hit, “Sailing,” start like this:
“Well, it's not far down to paradise, at least it's not for me
And if the wind is right you can sail away and find tranquility
Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see.”
Cross, if you don’t know the story, is the poster-child of this music—a whiny rich kid plastering lush string arrangements behind a maudlin tune about white privilege.
Who gets to go sailing? Most of us aren’t sailors. We’re more like Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob, a half-mad jester duct-taped to the mast screaming out, “I’m sailing! I’m sailing on my first try!” as the boat skims through the horrified flotilla.
And thus fate dealt a fitting hand to Cross, whose career cooled off as dramatically as his ascent—a victim of the music video age, with his jowly paunch and fastidious gaze. Or of an increasingly punk-like America. Cross wasn’t a bad boy nor a charmer. He didn’t dance. Your father liked his songs better than you. And so he sailed into the egg-yoke sun with his flamingo-themed logo.
But now he’s been sailing back.
In an interview with the CBS Sunday Morning Show, in 2012, Cross said he’d found peace with his career’s peripatetic nature. He’s still making music. He has a wall of gold records. And when the interviewer asks him what he’d tell his 30-year-old self, he quotes his father, who told him, “One of the tragedies of life is experience is non-transferable.”
Cross’s father was a doctor, who worked at Walter Reed, so they moved around a lot as a kid, eventually settling in San Antonio (within reach of “the border of Mexico” as iconized in “Ride Like the Wind”).
In a story that he tells at his shows, that he also shared with the CBS Morning Show reporter, Cross says the real story of his most famous song, “Sailing,” wasn’t about sailing at all (“I only went a couple times”) but rather about art. Canvas refers not to the tarp of a sail but the painter’s medium, suggesting the transformative power of the artist to move yourselfspiritually or emotionally when unable to physically.
Mom was in the audience at a casino in Iowa when he shared this tale two years ago. She’d driven over with her sisters. They waited in line afterward to get to meet him. In all my years, I’ve never known her to drive so far for a show.
Songs of melancholia near the sea come from various cultures.
In Portugal, the musical genre of Fado exists—heart-strong love-songs taken from the Portuguese word “saudade” (“suffering”), sung in guttural tones for lovers lost at sea.
Then there’s the sea-shanty, not just that bromide of an image of the thick-necked man with steel ring around his neck pounding a cow’s hide-bass-drum while grunting and sweating men pull on long, wooden oars. But the sing-out of uproarious melodies in French by pirates or merchant marines. In 1961, Stan “The Last Shantyman” Hugill, who wandered around for photographers in a ribbed stocking cap half pulled off his churlish blonde hair with a pipe’s ladle chewed and worked for twenty years on boats as a merchant marine, published Shanties of the Seven Seas, collecting scraps and melodies he’d heard of sometimes ancient tunes sung down by men swabbing the poop deck and hauling line.
One formula of sea music—like many working songs—is sharing tales of travels.
“Have you ever been to Frisco Bay?”
And the “ae” vowel cues up the response.
“And seen a girl named Molly?”
I’m not sure who Molly is or if this is even a song, but you see what it’s about. Songs condition and compel movement. If, as Morrison says, we can’t be on the sea, we might still travel on a tune.
Woody Guthrie, born in Oklahoma far from the sea, put “this machine kills fascists” on his guitar in 1941, after writing a song against Hitler. It’s a nice wish. But, of course, music has authoritarian possibilities—songs of nationalism, songs of chauvinism, songs of hate. They can all be played on a guitar quite easily. Songs of identity or consensus can be the scariest, and maybe if I were living in Maine with a family of blue-blooded, wine-swilling dock shoes, I’d be cautious about my thesis from this voice. But, to me, a son of public school teachers from the Midwest, yacht rock feels like one of the least authoritarian mode of music for me as it inspires exactly what I don’t and never will have: the sea.
Last year (2016), I was able to visit the sea three different times: Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York City. I understand that D.C. is not the sea. It is the Potomac. But I am talking about maritime culture. And that was on full display, as we went for a morning run through Alexandria’s Old Town district, where I saw a pelican perched ambassadorially on a thick wooden pole submerged into the mucky bottom of the pier, and men and women in pastel and mint shorts and shirts wandered the cobblestone in Sperry’s, and I felt a vile taste in my mouth. This was not me. I wouldn’t be a yacht clubber in a tidy polo as clean as the vacuumed carpet in the brig. I felt the prairie call to me, the husk and flannel and buffalo with yellow bird roosting on its furry butt.
Robert Frost in his early poem, “Mowing,” uses the letter “S” often to invoke the sound of a scythe swooshing and swishing through stalks of tall, summer grass.
This was a memory I knew. A memory of the land and culture within me, and when I returned to the prairie, all I could think about again, was the sea.
Mom’s family—the O’Connor’s—crossed the sea from Ireland in the 1880s. In the 1960s, she remembers Christmas Eve nights, going out to the big farmhouse south of Beresford, South Dakota where all of her relatives ate not ham or turkey but cod, fresh from some godforsaken place near Sioux City. My grandmother, whose grandparents crossed the ocean, only moved away from Union County in South Dakota once, when she moved down to Vermillion, South Dakota, to live with Tillie Geppert and care for her children.
One of those kids—Leo—grew up to be a doctor who after years moving between Army bases eventually landed in Texas, where he raised his own family, including a son, Christopher, who says only demurely that he had a “rough” upbringing in the CBS interview, playing in bands around San Antonio and eventually, upon signing with Warner Brothers in 1978, changed his last name.
He never really came back to the farm in South Dakota. But when he’d played the area over the years, there are often cousins and second cousins waiting backstage.
The website AllMusic wrote in 2014 in praise of yacht rock, with an expanded definition saying, “[T]he term has only gained strength, coming to describe a whole smooth aesthetic that existed roughly from 1975 to 1982, expanding far beyond the white soft-rockers of LA and encompassing smooth jazz and "Yacht Soul."
In recent years, the stigma around the term has softened as indie movements, such as respected, so-called “chillwave” or “bedroom pop” artists like Ariel Pink, Beach House, and Mac DeMarco have emerged giving if not verbal at least sonic send-ups to their denimed, longhaired forbearers.
Cross has even been resuscitated in the culture, getting mentioned on the popular television show 30Rock, as Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon wished for a special ode written to her and sung by Cross, paraphrasing the chorus from “Arthur’s Song”
“When you get lost between the moon and New York City…”
But Cross was far from New York City in an Iowa casino two summers ago when Mom saw him. After signing the record she’d purchased, Mom asked Cross about her sons—one a musician and the other a writer—who were struggling to get their work off the ground and how their struggles she tended to internalize, and then Cross told my mom, his second cousin he never knew until tonight, something his friend Steve Martin told him: “You are only as happy as your saddest child.”
But it is that far down to paradise when you grow up in landlocked Minnesota and never leave. My genes have gotten lost moving from tropics to temperates, from maritime to prairie climes. I’m in Des Moines today and there is a river and that seems enough. Seagulls swirl. A bridge is being built, so small motorized boats are anchored next to a miniature barge upon which workers in yellow hats scuttle. The sun is out, and because the way the water runs around the boats, the rive appears faster than normal, chugging along, like it’s rushing heavier, downhill toward something—what? A release, an escape, a sea—than is real.
It’s a mirage. A painting. An artifice.
But as I walked the East Village neighborhood, I sensed the dramatics that accompanies seaside villages or towns with larger rivers, closer to the ocean—a worldliness, a cosmopolitan urgency and contentedness, something we never had growing up.
Last fall at a yacht rock dance party, I won tickets to go see Firefall, who had a big 1974 hit.
“You are the woman that I’ve always dreamed of/ I loved you from the start.”
After offering them to Gretchen, I instead gifted them to my parents.
“Oh, it was wonderful,” Mom said, Sunday morning when they got home.
I happened to be home that weekend, trying to finish a book. They hadn’t seen my brother, either, who had moved into his shell a few months before he’d depart for Los Angeles on a music career. But my parents are starting to go to music again now that we’re long out of the house and not to return.
“They’re originally from Denver,” Dad said.
“And the venue was nice?”
“A really great place,” Mom said, referring to the jazz club, named for an indigenous culture, who was at home on the prairie, who traveled underneath the sun and moon across its stark horizon line, the grass its sea, its sailing grounds.
And so, too, is becoming my sensibilities—tethered primarily now to flatlands and grass. But I sense, still, crying out, I carry memories of the sea, fossils bedded in my rocks, like the sound of waves in a shell. Our ancestors cried and stayed awake drinking Guinness when family set sail for America, mourning not for the faces they would never see again, but for the children of their children, who would awake with only dreams of the sea and miles of endless, cornfields, dusty flowers separating from them the lap of the waves. That is why we sing songs of the sea. Why we put porcelain fish atop fancy restaurants in Midwestern capital cities. You miss the sea, even when you’ve rarely seen it. You dress for it. You sing for it.
When I lived in Minneapolis, a bar down the street hosted sea-shanty sing-alongs on Monday nights. Everyone wore sailor hats and cable-knit sweaters and slaked sloshy drinks. I never went. It seemed too sad. Us out here on the prairie, mistaking lakes for oceans. Friends still go. Maybe someday I will. And afterward, emerging onto the busy street traffic, not a sea in sight or smell, the falling snow might slick the sidewalk just enough for me to grab hold of the stern of the nearest street lamp, steadying my balance on the prow of this ship me and my bones have always known how to steady.
Christopher Vondracek lives in South Dakota, where he's working on a memoir about Lawrence Welk.