‘The Many-Colored Beast . . .’

Forty-five years ago this week, as I was entering the home stretch of my senior year of high school, the top three spots in the Billboard Hot 100 were occupied by Janis Joplin (“Me and Bobby McGee”), Tom Jones (“She’s a Lady”) and the Temptations (“Just My Imagination [Running Away With Me]”).

None of those really spoke to me, nor did much else in the Top 40 at the time, but I was still listening late every evening in my room. Early portions of the evenings were taken up at the time by keeping the scorebook at St. Cloud Tech High wrestling matches; by rehearsals and eventually performances of Don’t Drink The Water, the spring play at Tech; and by plenty of table-top hockey.

How much hockey? Rick, Rob and I had decided during the autumn that we would try to play a full 76-game schedule for our twelve-team league (the NHL’s Original Six and its first six expansion teams). That would have come to 456 games. By the time March rolled around, we realized that we weren’t going to finish the task. So we trimmed the schedule to 52 games per team, which still accounted for a pretty impressive total of 312 games (not counting the playoffs, which went around 40 games).

(It’s remarkable what’s stayed in my head over the years. Rob was clearly the best player that season: His St. Louis Blues were 36-8-8, and his New York Rangers were 30-10-12 and won the Stanley Cup.)

And there was music from the stereo as the games went on in the basement rec room. The two brothers would occasionally bring one or two albums with them, but usually, the music came from my slowly growing library: Seven Beatles albums (Beatles ’65, Let It Be, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Hey Jude, Revolver, and the White Album), Chicago’s second album, the 5th Dimension’s Aquarius, The Band’s self-titled second album, Best of Bee Gees, and an album that was becoming a favorite (and remains so to this day although it never seems to make those Top Ten lists I occasionally put together): Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu.

I didn’t quite get everything on the record: It took me years to figure out that David Crosby’s title tune was a reincarnation metaphor. Even so, I liked the track and the rest of the record enough that the process of having the music pretty much embedded in my mind was underway. (It’s still embedded; unless I purposefully divert it, the sounds of Déjà Vu will be running through my head the rest of the day.) And not only was I hearing the album as background for our rather loud hockey evenings; I was also listening to it at other, quieter times, absorbing what that quartet of gifted men were offering as musicians and as songwriters.

As a nascent songwriter myself – I’d bought my first guitar from a friend a few months earlier – I tried figure out how the four performers were putting their songs together. Some of them were far too complex for me to try to replicate (at least until I bought a songbook a few months later that offered the songs on Déjà Vu as well as those from the earlier Crosby, Stills & Nash album). Some of them, I wasn’t particularly interested in playing. But one of them caught my interest and was workable:

Four and twenty years ago, I come into this life,
The son of a woman and a man who lived in strife.
He was tired of being poor, and he wasn’t into selling door to door.
And he worked like the devil to be more.

A different kind of poverty now upsets me so.
Night after sleepless night, I walk the floor and I want to know:
Why am I so alone? Where is my woman? Can I bring her home?
Have I driven her away? Is she gone?

Morning comes the sunrise and I’m driven to my bed.
I see that it is empty, and there’s devils in my head.
I embrace the many-colored beast.
I grow weary of the torment. Can there be no peace?
And I find myself just wishing that my life would simply cease.

The emotional desolation in the song resonated with me, longing as I was for the company of one particular young lady (though the thoughts in the song were framed in far more adult ideas – the empty bed, for instance – than I could have found at the time). So I painstakingly worked out the chords. And though the emotional anguish that Stills chronicles is long gone from my life (it showed up a few other times along the way), the song “4+20” remains one of my favorites from Déjà Vu.

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