The 4th of July dawns on Vashon Island with the sunrise race of the hydros (hydroplane boats, see wiki). 52 years running— a race to circumnavigate the island at sunrise.
People love it. Or Hate it. It’s a noisy tradition that I haven’t been here long enough to love, and certainly how could I “hate” someone else’s tradition? Let them be.
Yesterday, as I listened to the screamy high-pitched voices of a neighbor’s grandchildren echoing across the water, I thought: “Ahh, yes. This is fair enough retaliation for the sound of music that I periodically bounce off the wall behind me as I melt into my steamer lounge chair.”
The space created by a house with a bank of fir trees to the left and tall hedges to the right produces a pretty awesome surround sound simulation for someone sitting in its midst. I know for a fact that neighbors to the left and right are oblivious to it because I’ve gone behind the hedge to check. They hear nothing.
Those across the water, au contraire, are in the path of the volume. I’m more careful if I see anyone on a deck in the distance, but I do love the sound of music over water.
Maybe twenty years ago, friends had just picked us up from our dock on the lake in Arkansas. The dock juts from a peninsula into a narrow cove with steep-sided hills. The Corps of Engineers plan shows an elevation gain of fifty-five feet on the switchback path over a distance of maybe twenty feet on the map.
King—yes, that really was the name on his birth certificate— put the inboard in reverse, and the boat slowly—very slowly—came about. He had these high dollar speakers in the boat, and unexpectedly, he and I exchanged a recognition of the music and the hills and the magnification. I felt a massive rush of goosebumps. Full body music magic.
It was a wordless exchange. We were perfectly still. I watched as King reached to put the engine in neutral and I know that we both twitched our ears—figuratively—like a deer does when you surprise it on a path in the woods. Roger and Grace were in the bow chattering about some silly something. King and I, the introverts in the stern, were content to say nothing as we listened.
Heart of Gold (Neil Young) was playing—its lyrics of growing old were lifting to the hills around us with vivid clarity.
The boat—and the moment—froze in time, barely moving on the just-before-sunset stillness of the glassy water. Clouds were caught in the reflection on the surface.
For me, it was a flashback to the first time I felt a massive disconnect with life. 1971. No need to go there now. Those feelings. Old Man hit on it too. I suppose I thought it odd that Neil Young, at such a young age, was so simultaneously tuned in to the brevity and sweetness of life.
Recently I read an anecdote about Neil Young playing this exact music over water that made me laugh out loud. LOLOL out loud out loud. Partly because our only boat at the time was a little rowboat.
I want to get it right, so here’s the story—word for word from Graham Nash, as he told it to Terry Gross on NPR in 2013.
I was at Neil’s ranch one day just south of San Francisco, and he has a beautiful lake with red-wing blackbirds. And he asked me if I wanted to hear his new album, “Harvest.” And I said sure, let’s go into the studio and listen.
Oh, no. That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said get into the rowboat.
I said get into the rowboat? He said, yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake. Now, I think he’s got a little cassette player with him or a little, you know, early digital format player. So I’m thinking I’m going to wear headphones and listen in the relative peace in the middle of Neil’s lake.
Oh, no. He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard “Harvest” coming out of these two incredibly large loud speakers louder than hell. It was unbelievable. Elliot Mazer, who produced Neil, produced “Harvest,” came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil: How was that, Neil?
And I swear to god, Neil Young shouted back: More barn!
Who would have guessed that King, not too many years later, would crash his private plane while hurrying home one evening after work?
We just don’t know when the music is going to stop, so we just have to keep playing.
And maybe, subscribe to my feed via email.