In the spring of 1999, we lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As I type that, it still astounds me. And it revives the smell, the feeling on my skin after a dip in the ocean, the roaring sound of living on the oceanfront.
It was the product of a windfall and a decision to live for now instead of the stuff of financial services commercials about saving for retirement. And it was a good decision. Every morning I got to put our son Gus on his school bus, and every afternoon I was there to greet him when he returned. Beth and I would have our morning coffee sitting on the stairs that led from our deck to the beach. I still remember the rhythmic appearance and disappearance of dorsal fins beyond the surf as dolphins made their way along the shore. There’s a whole lot more about the magical Outer Banks, but that’s plenty for now.
Except to say, what we learned living at milepost 21.5 in Nags Head, North Carolina, was that as grateful as we were to be able to live there for a couple seasons, we weren’t full-time beach people.
And so, by the spring of 1999, after we had made the decision to move back to Illinois, we found ourselves driving north to a restaurant called Ocean Boulevard. Ocean Boulevard was (and probably still is) a foodie kind of place. You could eat at a lot of places that served the freshest damn tuna or flounder or whatever. But we loved Ocean Boulevard for it’s crazy good tuna/wasabi salad. And for a giant rosemary bush outside the entrance from which we could poach smells and sprigs. So we headed there one last time.
NPR via the University of North Carolina’s station had arrived at the beach just months before we were to leave. For Beth, that meant Terry Gross’ Fresh Air was back in her life. And mine. Because when Beth hears something on Fresh Air, I hear about it. Which helps us both keep up with music and the arts and whatever.
We took the Beach Road instead of the Bypass. The Bypass is a five-lane clusterf*$k that feels like an Interstate but is not restricted access. Chaos. So we took the two-laner, which rides close to the shore. Windows open. Sun roof open. The smell of fish and sand and salt and … enveloped us. Ticky tack beach joints. Terry Gross was on, and the interview was with Charlie Haden, the jazz bassist.
As we drove, I learned that Charlie Haden contracted polio as a child growing up in Missouri. Until then he had been singing—by accounts beautifully—with his musical family who performed together. When he lost his voice, he took up the bass. And became one of the greatest jazz bassists ever.
He broke new ground in jazz playing with Ornette Coleman, led his own group (Liberation Orchestra), and another (Quartet West) and collaborated with Pat Metheny among many others …. he was more than a bassist. He was an artist. And a thinker. And without having met him, I would judge him as a great guy.
But back to that evening in late spring of 1999. As we approached the restaurant, he and Gross talked about his then-new album called The Art of the Song. It included standards—but not necessarily the best known standards—that he produced. A resurrection of beautifully written songs. Shirley Horn was among the artists that performed on it.
We pulled into the parking lot, and our reservation time approached, but we just couldn’t pry ourselves out of the the car before the interview was over. We were parked, pointed west toward the sound side of the Outer Banks. The sky was painted in pastels as it often was at sunset.
The interview ended with a song that Hayden sang—sang despite his compromised vocal chords. The song was Wayfaring Stranger. It started with a flourish of strings and it was immediately riveting. And then Haden began to sing. “I am a poor, wayfaring stranger…”.
I can’t do it justice. I hope you’ll listen to it via this link to a tribute to Haden on the NPR/Fresh Air Web site. (Wayfaring Stranger comes on at around the 45:00 minute mark, but if you can, listen to the whole program.)
What I can tell you is that for me, it expresses how sorrow and loss and hardship live shoulder to shoulder with beauty and joy. He strived, imperfectly, or more imperfectly than if he’d not ever had polio, and ended up with something transcendent.
Beth and I both ended up in tears by the end of Wayfaring Stranger. And we walked in for what was, as always, a terrific meal. I don’t remember what I ate that night. I do remember Charlie Haden. And always will.