Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Paris 1919

Looking for the connections.

We were in the same interdisciplinary class on "Fin de Siecle Vienna and the Roots of Modern Thought." She couldn't believe that so many great thinkers were gathered in one place at one time and thought we could recreate that at the end of the 20th century.

She was relentless, taking ever smaller notes on pad after college-ruled pad. And she drew connections.

If you wanted the nexus between Graham Greene, Einstein, and Desmond Tutu, she could show you, complete with illustrations and examples that were only briefly comprehensible when she explained them.

We didn't think then that she was crazy. She was just eccentric. And interesting.

And she'd call each of us at least once a week in the middle of the night with an outlandish theory that was just on the verge of explaining everything.

And she loved the Velvet Underground. She talked with no self-consciousness about her erotic dreams of Lou Reed and her schemes to recruit him into a modern-day salon she would hold with Stephen Hawking, the Pope, Bill Gates, and Larry Bird.

We all got worried when she started missing classes. After a week, we organized a search party, checking all her campus haunts. I found her locked in a study room at the library. She hadn't eaten or slept in days and she'd filled every bit of every page of 12 notebooks with microscopic theories that encompassed everything. Unwilling to go out to buy more paper, she started writing on the walls. And then on her skin.

They kept her medicated for days, finally letting her out just before midterms. Our professor begged us before she returned to class to concentrate on her brilliance and overlook her obsessions. That wasn't hard to do. She looked and acted normal. Her appetite came back. She started sleeping at night. Her class notes were a page or two, not a full notebook.

Later I realized none of that was normal for her. Because she was far from normal.

One night she called me at 4 am, begging me to go ice skating on a nearby lake in the moonlight. I didn't want to go out in the cold, but talked to her for an hour until she said she was going to sleep. In that conversation, she said it was wrong of her to focus so much on Lou Reed. After all, she said, it was John Cale who made the Velvet Underground what they were.

She told me there were at least four or five John Cales: the clasically trained viola player, the mellow singer-songwriter, the self-proclaimed Godfather of punk, the dark poet who once chopped the head off a dead chicken on stage, and the intellectual who always resented that the one thing he'd be best known for was playing in an influential band that never sold a lot of records.

I found out later, that I wasn't the only one she called that night; she held long, involved conversations with nearly every student in our class (none of whom wanted to go ice skating by moonlight).

I went by her dorm room the next afternoon and her door was open. Everything she owned was gone and the room was completely empty.

Except for a copy of John Cale's Paris 1919 sitting on her bare mattress. With a note that said "I needn't have bothered -- this record solved all the problems I've been working on for years."

Aside from that, there was no sign that she'd ever been there. During our last Fin de Siecle Vienna class, I looked out the window as it started to snow. The professor droned on, relieved the problem student was no longer around. I watched the snow falling, thought of her and her attempts to find that elusive common thread that would connect everything. And in my mind, I listened to this:


Kinky Paprika said...

I just bought this album and have been soaking in it.
This post is brilliant.

Alex said...

Thanks, Kinky!

I bought a copy of this at a used-record store in the mid-80s, hadn't thought of it in years, but suddenly needed to blow the dust off the needle and play it a few weeks ago.