Ramona, I Love You

Article excerpt

Love for a landscape, what we might call topophilia, derives not so much from how a place looks, but rather from our interactions with the place, and the stories and songs we create to record our recollections and emotions associated with the place. It is the stories that bring a landscape to life for me and make it beautiful. Beauty is never simple: for a landscape to be alive, its stories must be alive, and things that are alive are always growing and changing. Sometimes the stories change in ways that nourish our emotional longings and fears. Sometimes the stories make for a fantasy heritage that dishonestly obscures what people actually did in history, and sometimes the stories hide ugly things about what happened in the place. We all have our stories. I will tell you now my tale of love and landscape.

When I was seventeen, a senior in high school in Los Angeles, I got the family Volkswagen as a combination Christmas and birthday present. It was a '64 with those little tail lights and a 44 horsepower engine, but, more important, in it I learned my first lessons about love. Furtive sex in the back seat, you might be thinking, but no--it was just kissing and listening to small tastes of Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, and Eddie Floyd, and large quantities of the Temptations, the Rolling Stones, and their idol, Otis Redding, on the AM radio. Yes, readers, I'm referring here to Wolfman Jack's broadcasts from south of the border on station XERB. Those of you who never knew the Wolfman and XERB, skip it; you had to have been there. I can't convey in words this scene driving around Hollywood late at night listening to the Wolfman, coming to know that one's little world is neither what it seems, nor all there is in life.

These were such fabulous songs of heterosexual love and devotion. Joe Tex sang "Show Me a Man Who's Got a Good Woman" and how you need to "Hold on to What You've Got"; Solomon Burke sang "Cry to Me"; Eddie Floyd, so full of thunder and lightening about his love that he told us how to "Knock on Wood" to keep it. But then there was nothing like the Temptations' "My Girl," and, well, when Percy Sledge came on with "When a Man Loves a Woman," it was the only time there was quiet in the car; my friends and I just called the song "Whenna," and we listened in awe. Back then I thought, in this little world of R&B love on the Volkswagen AM radio, that Otis Redding's eloquence about the need to "Try a Little Tenderness" would solve any love problems that I might encounter.

This is still the music I listen to, and I still think about love in many of these ways: I'm still awestruck as soon as "Whenna" comes on what is now the oldies station. It's just that love hasn't seemed to work out so easily and not even Otis's "Pain in My Heart" or the Stones' "Heart of Stone" have made the disappointments ok. I, and I will be presumptuous and say "we," need more metaphors about love than these precious and sublime songs provide to find satisfaction. When I say "we" here I must say right off that I speak as a heterosexual man. I won't pretend here to write about other kinds of love, though I treasure talking about love with all manner of lovers. I will say, perhaps with some presumption, that these are good songs for all of us: What can I say but that I was a heterosexual teenager when I first heard Otis Redding, the Temps, and the Stones on the AM radio in Los Angeles and thought I knew something about love.

Partly out of nostalgia for this place, for southern California, I have read and reread the magnificent novel Ramona. Helen Hunt Jackson, a peculiar Victorian woman from New England, moved west and became interested in California Indians. She wrote her story about the man-made catastrophe of the California Indians and about the tragic love of the two protagonists, Ramona and Alessandro. Through her tale I have learned a new song of love, one from 1927: "Ramona, I hear the mission bells above/Ramona they're ringing out our song of love/ I press you, caress you, and bless the day you taught me to care/To always remember the rambling rose you wear in your hair/ Ramona, when the day is done you'll hear my call, Ramona, we'll meet beside the waterfall / I dread the dawn when I awake to find you gone, Ramona, I need you my own. …