Nick Drake: Pink Moon
mumble-mumble-worbrang, an awesome spanking, 8000 gnats in a traction beam, a citrus river, turquoise, a castinet sizzle, and snow flurries in June
There were probably ten of us, in college, split up between two cars. One fraternity. One sorority. We were on spring break, headed from the Upper West Side to Sarasota, Florida. Our battered station wagon had bags roped to the roof and six of us inside. This was long before seat belts so we just kind of crammed our way into the back.
The driver was very tense about the borrowed car and why our feet where on the ceiling of the backseat and about directions and how we’d stay in touch with the other vehicle, but the passengers were the exact opposite, having a great time, laughing, teasing her over and over until she laughed, calling her “mom” at every opportunity. We rode the edge of her sense of humor.
We were New Yorkers, students, and none of us spent much time outside the city, so driving was an adventure. The laughter started with somebody’s wrong directions around 116th street trying to head north on Broadway. The backseat jokers were in high gear by the time we crossed the George Washington Bridge.
Say You, Say Me was a hit that spring and we ended up making fun of the line “I had an awesome dream” and everything was an “awesome this” and an “awesome that” in Lionel Richie’s voice. That would be an awesome turn and an awesome lane change.
I kicked off an impression of Bob Dylan’s section of We Are the World that I repeated until Maryland, and mom started to yell that I had to stop it or she’d pull over and, like, spank me, Adam. There was an awkward silence for a few seconds, everybody taking in the shifting power dynamic, and then somebody said that would be an “awesome spanking,” and we were back at it again.
The station wagon was full of cigarette smoke and discreet beers. I’m not sure how I ended up on a spring break trip. I never had any money, and it wasn’t really my thing this whole frat house spring break trip, but there I was staring up through the station wagon’s rear window at the nighttime sky having the time of my life.
We broke down in Virginia.
There was a horrible clanking in the rear right wheel. We waved to the second car that we had to pull over, then made our way to a service station in the middle of nowhere. There was one street lamp, 8000 gnats in its traction beam and a service station out of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mom was tired and getting tense for real, so we tried to pull it together out of respect, but it was not easy to maintain humor sobriety. Then the nicest local you could ever meet came out of the station to help us. I’m not sure he worked there or simply hung out all day waiting for people to have problems so he could say hello.
He said something in an accent so strong none of us had no idea what he was getting at. He pointed to the wheel and scratched his head and said mumble-mumble-mumble and then mumble-mumble-worbrang-mumble.
Since I hadn’t done anything to help the entire trip – and I was the one who’d been so good with the Bob Dylan accent for 600 miles – I was tasked with communicating with him. I asked him to repeat himself and then, again, a third time. After that I pretended to understand.
There’s a natural limit with English-to-English translation requests somewhere greater than two but less than three. Behind the local fellow’s back, the others did impressions of me trying to understand our friend, scrunching their foreheads and scratching their temples. I had to look at the ground to hold it together, fighting through a grin to stay on the edge of control. Mom gave me a comeuppance eyebrow raise.
It turned out the problem was a ‘wheel bearing.’ Pronounced worbrang in Back Woods Virginian. Somehow we fixed the car or decided to drive on it, or I can’t remember what we did. It was a million years ago.
There was a black guy in our group who could do a sidesplitting impression of Leave It to Beaver White People communicating. His White People spoke very, very clearly and e-nun-ci-a-ted everything, and he took over with an impression of a Very White Mom struggling with her backseat children.
By South Carolina everybody could do worbrang in their best mumble-mumble and competitive impressions of white people. We were male and female, gay and straight, black, white and Asian. We were the world! We were the children! Friendship carried us on our citrus river the rest of the way to Florida, and we lit each other’s cigarettes in the back and opened up the station wagon rear window and smelled the Georgia air and felt fine.
I’ve never been a hang out in big groups kind of guy. There’s too much else to do, and mostly I’m a one-on-one person or make my closest friends working on something together, but that ride to Florida, and the week down there was an exception. We spent a lot of time at the beach and around the hotel pool hanging out. We pestered mom why she made reservations on the non-Spring Break side of Florida in the middle of a retirement community, but she dropped her sunglasses over her eyes and continued tanning.
And there was a moment the first or second night we were there, when the happy feeling was in full bloom, and there was still a lot of vacation week ahead. I was getting out of the pool at the hotel, and a bunch of us were walking back up the cement stairs to our rooms. I had a turquoise towel wrapped around my shoulders and a tan, and I saw myself in a reflection and realized all the sudden that turquoise was my favorite color. It hadn’t been until that trip. I’d always thought blue was my favorite color, but it’s not. It’s turquoise.
There’s a great Kafka quote about only knowing who you are when you are truly happy.
In the Volkswagen ad they are driving with the car top down and passing over a river. It’s shot in a kind of blue and white Joni Mitchell album cover monochrome. There’s June fluff in the air and the girl in the passenger seat reaches out to touch it as it blows over the car like snow flurries. There are shots of tree branches swimming high over the road, and it is as if you are in the back of that car and you’re a child looking up at the canopy above you.
There is a light castanet sizzle of crickets and car passing sounds. Because they are pulled out of the background mix for just a moment, you appreciate the background sound as foreground with meditative silence.
And there’s this song they are listening to in the car that captures all of it, one of those songs that communicates ‘total wow’ seconds in, a song you must find the name for, that will haunt you if you don’t, that you’ve never heard.
Pink, pink, pink, pink…
The four young people in the advertisement pull in to this roadside party, and there’s an abrupt mood shift. Cars are crammed in everywhere on the gravel, and there’s no obvious place to park. There are colored lights strung up on poles, and some drunk guy is yahooing and jumping over a picnic table holding a beer in his outstretched arm. The energy is the opposite of where they had been in the car coming over.
There’s an exchange of glances and the group decides, without a word, to leave and keep driving. “Drivers Wanted,” the ad reads, and it turns out to be for Volkswagen, but really it’s for Nick Drake, or friendship, or love.
It was first time I’d ever heard the husky melancholy of Nick Drake’s voice, the shy, sweet beauty of his music, a guitar sound and vocal style as rare as white fluff in spring air. His simple tune on guitar, the easy, lower register vocals, the single note descending piano riff – it sounds like something one of the people in the Cabrio might have played for the others on his own guitar later that evening, by a river turn-off, intimate, personal, a private songwriter’s tune, the lyrics still being worked out.
Everything I’d ever want to say about warm nights and car rides and new friends on that trip to Sarasota, I could say through that voice, lying in the back of the car, a long road still ahead, the laughter subsided now, watching the stars swirl overhead as the driver somewhere far, far up front, looks back at her passengers through the rear-view mirror and shakes her head ‘yes.’