For my birthday Ellen gave me a book called Hippie. Not just because I was and maybe still am one. But because separately on opposite coasts and from very different backgrounds we shared so much in the years 1965-71 (the years covered by the book)—from the rise of pot and the Merry Pranksters to the deaths of Jimi and Janis and the mainstreaming of long hair. They were giddy times, college and post-college; we thought the world really had changed. Ellen and I met, at Keystone in 1972, still in bell bottoms, and began careers as ski instructors. Maybe we were still hippies then? I don’t know if you could be a professional in the ski industry and a hippie at the same time. Maybe.
The other reason Ellen chose the book was the double meaning in its title. I was headed for hip replacement surgery four days after my birthday bash. I am home now, a recipient of more high-tech joint hardware. Now I’m really hip. Can’t get no more hip. Terminally hip (since I have no more hips to replace).
Of course, going under the knife again one thinks about possible complications, including terminal complications. To dispel those thoughts, to keep a steady stream of good energy going in the days prior, I listened a lot to two of my other birthday presents. One was the Leonard Cohen live in London album. The other was Van Morrison’s new live version of his classic 1968 recording Astral Weeks. “And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first/And I will drink clear clean water for to quench my thirst.” “If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dreams/. . . Could you find me?/Would you kiss my eyes?”
Great stuff, musical poetry that transcends eras. The party that Ellen and Beth Jones threw for me and for Bill Liske (I am one day older than Bill) featured a bevy of 60-year-olds: avalanche forecaster extraordinaire Jerry Roberts; artist/ski instructor Burnie Arndt; guide and globe-shopper Liske; filmmaker, Renaissance dad Edgar Boyles. (There were lovely women of a certain age, too, though none of them were volunteering specific numbers.) Arndt’s present to everyone was to set up a studio in a back bedroom and take Irving Penn style portraits of all the revelers.
Not unsurprisingly perhaps, there were at least four artificial hips in the joint, three by the same surgeon. Burnie is one.
We are all falling apart in various ways at various speeds. There’s a great line in Cohen’s song “Tower of Song”: “My friends are gone and my hair is gray/I ache in the places I used to play.”
Early in the concert he muses on the flight of time. He tells the audience “It’s been a long time since I stood on a stage in London. About 14 or 15 years. I was 60. Just a kid with a crazy dream.”
Despite his years—with a voice deep as a well and a reputation as a writer of apocalyptic satire—the concert, and the disk, is not glum; it is beautifully, surprisingly uplifting. It is very much about death. In “Who By Fire” Cohen lists a myriad ways to go: “who by brave ascent, who by accident…who by avalanche, who by powder. Who shall I say is calling?” Obviously, it’s the Grim Reaper calling. Another song is called “Closing Time.”
But most of the music does, in fact, celebrate what is left to do. You get the feeling that Cohen, at 75, is still into sex, still into the ladies, still parsing the mysteries with his word-gift. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Burnie Arndt appeared unexpectedly in my hospital room a few days later. I was sitting up in a chair for the first time since surgery. He handed me a box of prints from his portrait shoot at the party. There we all were in various states of inebriation, each face a study in six decades, more or less, of wear and tear—inherited designs, well-earned smile lines, and lines you’d more likely describe as representing the ravages of sun and wind and time.
Don’t get me wrong; we looked good. We looked hip, extremely hip, and ready for more. All of us cracked, yes, but with the light still shining through.