Apr. 23, 2013
On certain days I am not in love
and my heart turns over
crowding the lungs for
driving blood in and out of
the skull improving my mind
working muscles to the bone
dashing resonance out of a roaring sea
at my nerve endings
Not much is needed
a noisy taking in and a
loud giving back
Then my heart like any properly turned
motor takes off in sparks dragging all that machinery
through the blazing day
which our lord knows
Today is the birthday of Roy Orbison (1936), born in Vernon, Texas, to Orbie Lee, a mechanic, and Nadine, a nurse. His father gave him a guitar on his sixth birthday, and by the time he was seven, he knew that music was his calling. He later said, "I was finished, you know, for anything else." He studied geology in college, planning to work in the oil fields if he couldn't make a living playing his guitar, but when his classmate Pat Boone signed a big record deal, it only strengthened his resolve to make a go of music. He moved to Memphis with his band, the Teen Kings, in 1956, and they had a contract and a modest hit with Sun Records. Eventually, the band split up, and Orbison worked for a while as a songwriter.
His career ignited in 1960 with a song that had been turned down by Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. "Only the Lonely" was the antithesis of the typical rock and roll song of the period, with no driving beat or teenage defiance; it was mournful and plaintive, with a string section backing up Orbison's operatic voice. He had severe stage fright, and performed dressed all in black, hiding behind a pair of thick prescription Wayfarer sunglasses. He said: "I wasn't trying to be weird, you know? ... But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black, somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really."
One day, during a songwriting session with his partner Bill Dees, Orbison asked his wife, Claudette Frady Orbison, if she needed any money for her upcoming trip to Nashville. Dees remarked, "Pretty woman never needs any money." Forty minutes later, Orbison's most famous hit, "Oh, Pretty Woman," had been written.
His fame declined after "Oh, Pretty Woman" until he formed the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty in 1988. Orbison died of a heart attack in December of that year, about six weeks after the band's first album was released.
Today is the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov (books by this author) born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He was the first of five children; his father was a lawyer and politician and the family were well-to-do members of the minor nobility. He grew up with access to a lavish library, and was trilingual, fluent in English and French, as well as his native Russian, from an early age. When he was 17, he inherited an estate from his uncle, but he lost it the following year in the Bolshevik Revolution, and he was never to own a house again. The family fled St. Petersburg during the revolution, and in 1919 they settled in western Europe: first England, where Nabokov attended Cambridge, and then Berlin, where his father was shot and killed at a political rally in 1922.
Nabokov left Berlin in 1936 with his wife, Vera, who was Jewish, and their son; they moved to Paris but left again in 1940 to escape the Nazi advance. They settled in the United States, where he wrote and pursued the life of the academic nomad, moving from rented house to rented house and teaching at a series of colleges. In 1961, the success of his famously controversial novel Lolita (1953), and its subsequent film adaptation, enabled him to retire and write full time, and the Nabokovs moved to a hotel in Switzerland, where they lived until his death in 1977.
He wrote his first nine novels in Russian, and then began writing in English, although he mourned the loss of his native language. He wrote in the afterword to Lolita: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English."
He was also a passionate and methodical collector of butterflies. He wrote, "From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender," and he claimed that he would have become a lepidopterist, had it not been for the interruption of the Bolshevik Revolution. His knowledge, though self-taught, was so great that he was appointed curator for the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's butterfly collection. In 1945, he came up with a theory that the Polyommatus Blue species had come to North America from Asia in a series of waves, and though professional lepidopterists scoffed at him at the time, recent DNA research has proven him right.
In his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), he wrote, "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."
And, "A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die."
Today is traditionally held to be the birthday of William Shakespeare (books by this author), who was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. He left behind no personal papers; so much of what we know, or think we know, about him comes to us from public and court documents, with a fair measure of inference and speculation. We do know that his father John was a glove maker and alderman, and his mother, Mary Arden, was a landed heiress. William's extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek likely came from his education at the well-respected local grammar school. That was the extent of his formal education, which has led to hundreds of years of conspiracy theories disputing the authorship of his plays, since many found it unbelievable that he could have written so knowledgeably about history, politics, royalty, and foreign lands on a grammar school education. Various figures, such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth I, have been put forward as possible — though unproven — ghost writers.
We know that he married the older — and pregnant — Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was 26, and she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, six months later. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed two years after that, and son Hamnet died at age 11. It's speculated that his son's death hit Shakespeare hard, because he began to write Hamlet soon afterward.
He moved to London around 1588 — possibly to escape deer-poaching charges in Stratford — and began a career as an actor and a playwright. By 1594, he was also managing partner of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a popular London theater troupe. He was popular in his lifetime, but his popularity didn't rise to the level that George Bernard Shaw referred to as "bardolatry" until the 19th century.
In 1611, he retired to Stratford and made out his will, leaving to his wife, Anne, his "second-best bed." He died on or around his birthday in 1616, and was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, leaving a last verse behind as his epitaph: "Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare / to dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man who spares these stones, / and cursed be he who moves my bones."
Though biographical details may be sketchy, his literary legacy is certain. He wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and a couple of epic narrative poems. He created some of the most unforgettable characters ever written for the stage, and shifted effortlessly between formal court language and coarse vernacular. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with coining 3,000 new words, and has contributed more phrases and sayings to the English language than any other individual. His idioms have woven themselves so snugly into our daily conversations that we aren't even aware of them most of the time, phrases such as "a fool's paradise," "a sorry sight," "dead as a doornail," "Greek to me," "come what may," "eaten out of house and home," "forever and a day," "heart's content," "slept a wink," "love is blind," "night owl," "wild goose chase," and "into thin air."
Though we have no way of knowing whether the Bard of Avon was writing of his own impending retirement when he wrote Prospero's soliloquy from The Tempest in about 1610, it's satisfying to think so:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®