mesmerized by pale blue eyes...

March 12th, 2014, 11pm

It was 17.2°C with few clouds. The wind was light.

Part One, when we consider muses, and eating The Dictionary…

How I came to find myself at this Crossroads, bearing little more than my own Shimmering Chimera & Hopes that fit inside a Matchbox, maybe that matters in the scheme of things, and yet how funny that it seems almost entirely irrelevant. For here I am: summoned, ornery, in need of the baptism that will “wash me down” with the music that marks the boundaries of my rejuvenation, found here at The Crossroads.

Funny that this moment happens at Magnolia’s Corner, just one of the neighborhood wine bars scattered in every neighborhood in Portland. I love the Southern drawl of the name, Magnolia’s Corner, and the name implies that a Crossroads moment might be here for the asking, along with a very diverse & adventurous list of wines matched to above average wine bar food. But make no mistake, tonight at this cozy corner crossroads there will be music — but it won’t be a haunted guitar that has bargained with either Devil or Angel that reckons my fate; instead, the deep sonorities of the cello preside over this dreaming, this Humpty Dumpty moment when I re-assemble the kaleidoscope of my heart, and gingerly test my bionic new knee, ten days from surgery.

Thus, I find myself inexplicably ready in PDX to hear my friend & superstar cellist from New Orleans, the inimitable chanseur Helen Gillet, who is somehow here very near my new home. Helen has unpacked her sound system gear to snatch loops & stomping on pedals (or are those petals?) from the deft sonic air she phrases with her dazzling sleight-of-hand in layers of textured sound made simply, made live in performance from the cozy space that passes-as-the-stage here at Magnolia’s Corner on the corner of NE 42nd Ave & Sandy Blvd in this weird & wonderful city of Roses known as Portland in the western pocket of Oregon, nestled betwixt the fertile Willamette (damnit!) & the powerful Columbia Rivers. Please pardon the feeling of “who cares how the fuck I got here!” It’s a Crossroads moment…when will I hear it, with my tender knee & leg bloated like a stunt prop for a Zombie BBQ? When will I be mesmerized tonight more than ever before by my friend, the cellist, as she plucks & bows, unlocking something that suddenly….I know that only I have that key?

It is but a year ago, on New Year’s Eve 2012, that I had Helen Gillet perform her magic at my new restaurant to the delight of everyone, but from then to now, everything (for me) has changed. This PDX night, pinned to these specimen days, is Thursday evening, Feb. 27, 2014 which marks the peak when Carnival season truly begins back home in New Orleans with the epic Muses all-women parade, but I emerge in my guise as a “butterfly of winter” nearer to a volcano than to St. Charles Avenue, and somehow here is Helen and her cello to greet me with her one-woman concert, which is more than blessing enough….my favorite musical Muse has somehow trekked way out West to play a concert when I most needed magic from Nola.Astonishing…

“If I could make this world
as pure & strange as what I see
I’d put you in a mirror
that I’d put in front of me
that I put in front of me

Linger on, your pale blue eyes…(repeat)
—“Pale Blue Eyes” Lou Reed & Velvet Underground, 1969

The first set goes splendidly! There are several musicians in attendance, some associated with the groovy avant-garde Portland Cello Project. I am happy that my sister is here, not only shepherding me but connecting the dots again after all these years, that her big brother is still tuned into his psychedelic poetic wavelengths. And another new friend, D —who saved us these front table seats—finally gets to say hello to me after reading my words from afar, and who tells me, she used to work in the same impossibly cramped, tiny French Quarter micro-labyrinth of a restaurant that I took over & dubbed Green Goddess. D worked there over a decade ago, when the place was known as Old Dog, New Trick, with their unusual (for New Orleans) vegetarian menu. I definitely used to dine at Old Dog, New Trick ‘pre-deluge,’meaning before the levee failures of Hurricane Katrina left their indelible watermark of Time, dividing life in New Orleans as ‘before’ or ‘after;’ meaning D and I shared the ephemera of work, food, and New Orleans more than I knew. D’s mother has played classical cello, too; so I am glad D is taking a night from her adorable husband & son, and bringing a few friends out to Magnolia’s. We all bring our waves to this ripple effect, to this assemblage of folks here to ‘catch’ the music of Helen Gillet just like back home we ‘catch’ a Carnival parade, and I wonder…will I keep translating Life through the prism of my Mardi Gras mentality? I click my heels together, gimpily & carefully and pray, “I hope so forever!”

Set break, we order something to eat; my sister buys a CD from Helen’s roadie. My leg is throbbing, but…well…it would have been doing that whether I’m home or at this concert, so I’m not leaving this Crossroads, not now. There were plenty of moments first set where I felt the audience catch their breath, for as you watch & listen as Helen builds these layers….as we see Helen raise her hand just so, stomp her foot on gadgets & rhythms, coaxing a percussive riff from her cello, then a scampering pizzicato of plucked strings, next a spiel of Belgian lyrics sung in her native French tongue, and finally, her hand & bow articulating the melody & the solo & everything else that desire & impeccable artistry can bring to this fugitive son of New Orleans lost in a strange land & ready to learn The Shape of Things to Come…the layers accumulate in each song in the twinkling of a gesture…repeating…riffs…mesmerizing….

The word ‘mesmerize’ feels like an apt description of what happens when people catch Helen Gillet live the first time…and as a person who loves words, who ate pages of The Dictionary as a kid like Ferdinand the Bull grazing in a field of flowers, I know ‘mesmerize’ is such a compelling & hypnotic word…for it hides a strange & beautiful tale in its etymology…a biography of a real person…and as I tidy up my last forkfuls of a pesto quinoa gratin of vegetables…my mind whirring through its database of flavors almost unconsciously as a chef no bite goes unrecognized…I am chewing over the words ‘mesmerize’ and ‘etymology’ on the surface of my noisy, hungry mind…trying to imagine what it might mean to pursue the etymology of a song….when…the first song of the second set finishes, and Helen launches into her version of “Pale Blue Eyes”

By the second verse, one of those lyrics that has always held me in its arms like a lullaby, a hint of alchemy that I’ve sung to myself on the jukebox that only plays in the midnight hours of my soul, I’m chained to this moment like a butterfly splitting his sticky, claustrophobic chrysalis, emerging into the music:

**”I thought of you as my mountain-top
thought of you as my peak
I thought of you as everything
I’ve had, but couldn’t keep
that I’ve had, but could not keep

Linger on…your pale blue eyes…(repeat)”**
By Lou Reed and Velvet Underground (their 3rd LP, sans John Cale), 1969

I actually break out my phone & type in the memo section: ‘mesmerized by pale blue eyes’ a note that will pursue me this fortnight of healing…

I’ve always felt that “Pale Blue Eyes” is one of those songs that is a secret song for the soundtrack of my life. We all have a flora & fauna of books, art, songs, poems, music, theater or films that are the building block for our artistic inkwell that let us put our stamp upon the world. Scientists also have these moments of discovery that opens a door to a puzzle that, once solved, leads to the next door, the next leaf, the next stone, the next puzzle. As human beings, one of our defining traits is how we eat our way through a field of flowers, absorbing art into our bones & breath. Tonight, Feb. 27, 2014 just 10 days after tossing my left knee into the biological hazard trashcan for a bionic replacement, my antenna are tuned to a thankful wavelength, and the way “Pale Blue Eyes” hits me, this first time I hear it after Lou Reed’s death, this moment when I realize the ways this song has been with me have grown deeper as the years unfurl; especially, that it is one of a handful of songs which urges me to sing the words myself for myself; of course, somehow improbably & right on time Helen says, here it is….

On the original LP and even throughout his career, Lou Reed sings this hurt behind “Pale Blue Eyes” like a sexy lullaby for risqué lovers, and the keening refrain of “linger on…” takes on a campfire quality where you can sing it with shaded nuances of passion & longing, or the trembling letting go of something any of us wanted all for our lonesome selves; but Helen awakens this lullaby with every ounce of kundalini blues over the frustration of great but forbidden sex in a losing cause where you have to settle for “you’re my best friend,” all the while knowing that you will lose that spark, this flame, such a once-in-a-lifetime chance to share each other in the intimate, surreal mirror only lovers can share.

I love the anger & frustration & dangerous sense of Blues & Duende that Helen Gillet breathes into her version of “Pale Blue Eyes” tonight. The anger hums & turns inside out so that the hunger feels liberating. Like saying, if we can’t shed the steel trap jaws of Time to live for this Flame of love, then we have no regrets for singed wings burnt by the fire we made. I’m not here for the sorrows; I loved you for the flights we shared. And we won’t stop our flying ways, whether apart or together, we won’t stop learning how to fly. We are still mesmerized by learning how to fly…

When we unravel the biography of a song, the intentions of a songwriter often gets lost as the song begins to cast a wider spell over listeners. In fact, the woman with whom Lou Reed risks this affair has hazel eyes, not blue eyes that haunt. So “Pale Blue Eyes” has always worn a mask, an invitation to blur the meanings behind this sexy campfire song of love lost. That’s why a song endures. Everybody can don this mask, burning with the desire to hold this mirror image of secrets shared with a breathtaking lover & later lost to the cruelty of wrongful circumstances, as we linger on whenever & wherever the heart has been mesmerized by pale blue eyes.

If I could run a home movie of my life, how many ways would “Pale Blue Eyes” be the perfect song? From my collegiate daze in Athens, GA where we all knew Velvet Underground were the rulers of the day, that indie rock of the ’80s owed everything to the droning, transgressive, sexually candid and mysteriously transparent low-fi records of the Velvet Underground that were so far ahead of Time. In my life and marriage in New Orleans, the song aged like a beautiful bottle of wine. If I were able, or narcissist enough, to walk you through the happy times, the melancholy moments, and the fury I feel at the steel trap jaws of Time that have blown apart my Shimmering Chimera, I could not pick a better song as the flower I would eat with thee, rather than to explain my past. Maybe bcuz I do have pale blue eyes; maybe bcuz the song has a lost lullaby energy & emotion, maybe bcuz “I thought of you as everything I’ve had, but could not keep…”


In the end though it’s the art of “Pale Blue Eyes,” not purely the biography behind the song that matters. A song this good is built for the ages, and other artists, beyond the circle of musicians to include writers, cinema geeks, and visual artists will keep finding new insights to map their twisting tales about this song. Believe it or not our time together at this Crossroads isn’t finished. Step right this way, as I have a funhouse of mirrors & stories colliding beneath the tumbling burlesque of words & wings & eyeballs & random snapshots that you didn’t know you needed to see what it means to be “mesmerized by pale blue eyes.”

Part Two ensues….

Zoe, Barb, Dani and David Wade said thanks.

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Chris DeBarr

Chef who believes in eating the world to save it. Wine & language & sharp knives are the tools of my métier. At heart, I'm a warm & fuzzy Dadaist.

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