Sep. 23, 2014

Summer Morning

by Louis Simpson

There are whole blocks in New York
Where no one lives—
A district of small factories.
And there's a hotel; one morning

When I was there with a girl
We saw in the window opposite
Men and women working at their machines.
Now and then one looked up.

Toys, hardware—whatever they made,
It's been worn out.
I'm fifteen years older myself—
Bad years and good.

So I have spoiled my chances.
For what? Sheer laziness,
The thrill of an assignation,
My life that I hold in secret.

"Summer Morning" by Louis Simpson, from Collected Poems. © Paragon House, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of songwriter and musician Bruce Springsteen, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1949). He grew up in a Catholic working-class family. One day when he was about seven years old, he and his mom sat down to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, and Elvis was the guest. Springsteen turned to his mom and announced: "I wanna be just like that."

In high school, he joined a local band called the Castiles, named for a type of soap. The Castiles played at Elks lodges, trailer parks, birthday parties, and a ShopRite ribbon cutting. He was a songwriter from the beginning, even though it was an era when most people were recording material written by others. He said: "The main reason I started doing my own arrangements and writing my own songs was because I hated to pick them up off the records. I didn't have the patience to sit down and listen to them, figure out the notes and stuff." He performed with various bands, playing in towns along the Jersey Shore. Eventually, he recorded a couple of his own albums. The albums had such bad sales that his record deal with Columbia was in danger of being terminated. He spent 14 months working on a new album, including six months on a single song, called "Born to Run." He said: "I had these enormous ambitions for it. I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I'd ever heard. I wanted it to sound enormous, to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention — not just to the music, but to life, to being alive." When the album Born to Run was released in August of 1975, Springsteen became an overnight phenomenon.

In the early years, he wrote and sang songs about teenage life on the streets of New Jersey, about cars and girls and dead-end jobs. After Born to Run, he became more interested in folk and country. First he discovered Hank Williams and listened to his albums over and over. He said, "In country music, I found the adult blues, the working men's and women's stories I'd been searching for, the grim recognition of the chips that were laid down against you." Then, in his late 20s, he picked up a biography of Woody Guthrie and was inspired by Guthrie's radical politics. He said: "I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked Elvis, I liked the pink Cadillac too much, I like the simplicity and the tossed-off temporary feeling of pop hits [...] and, in my own way, I like the luxuries, and the comforts, of being a star." But his music became more political. He released a dark, solo acoustic album, Nebraska, about the lives of Americans who were slipping through the cracks of the American dream. He said: "I sat down for two months and I wrote the whole thing. I recorded and mixed it in my bedroom and put it out on cassette. I always think of it as my most personal record. What happens when all the things you believe in when you're 25 don't work? What happens when all these things just break down? Your friends fail you, or you fail your friends? When you're alone — can you live?"

His next album, Born in the U.S.A., became one of the best-selling albums of all time. He has recorded 18 studio albums, including The River (1980), The Rising (2002), Wrecking Ball (2012), and most recently, High Hopes (2014).

He said, "I tend to be a subscriber to the idea that you have everything you need by the time you're 12 years old to do interesting writing for most of the rest of your life."

On this day in 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their westward expedition after more than two years and 8,000 miles. Most people had given them up for dead, and when they came into St. Louis on the Mississippi River, the whole town crowded along the shore to greet them with cheers, gunfire salutes, and ringing bells. Their report of what they discovered filled Americans with excitement about the West and launched a flood of expansion across the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.

It's the birthday of singer Ray Charles, born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia (1930). They called him the "Father of Soul." He first got national attention in the mid-1950s with his performance of "I Got A Woman," which fused rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz.

He said: "I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind. If it's a big record, that's the frosting on the cake, but music's the main meal."

On this day in 1641, the 17th-century transport ship The Merchant Royal was caught in rough weather off southwestern England. Less than 40 miles from the jagged coast of Land's End, Cornwall, and leaking badly, she sank, taking with her 18 crewmen, 100,000 pounds of gold (nearly a billion dollars in today's currency), 400 bars of Mexican silver, and nearly half a million pieces of eight and other coins. Skippered by the esteemed Captain John Limbrey, the ship was transporting Spain's colonial loot to Antwerp, where it was to be converted into pay for Spain's 30,000 soldiers. Limbrey refused to leave the ship until the very end, when he and 40 other crewmen were rescued by another merchant ship. Limbrey was so distraught with grief that he refused to be seen in public for several months. Considered the holy grail of shipwrecks, The Merchant Royal has been the obsession of international treasure seekers for decades, its exact location difficult to pinpoint because of the area's volatile waters and jagged underwater landscape. In 2007, the Odyssey Marine Exploration Company claimed to have recovered more than $500 million in coins from a shipwreck they believed to have been The Merchant Royal. After testing the coins, it is believed that they were recovered instead from another wreck, that of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk in 1804. Spain sued to recover the money; the case has not been resolved. An estimated 3 million shipwrecks, with untold fortunes and stories, languish at the bottom of the world's oceans.

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