Fabio and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

October 23rd, 2008
A few years ago, back when I was still caught up in the delusion of becoming a world famous grammy award winning singer/songwriter, I decided to go on a songwriting retreat.  I had heard about a retreat that was being held in a woodsy compound outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas.  I sent in my registration form, dug out my dangly earrings, located my tye-dye tanktops, and prepared to go.
Strangely, and for reasons that I still don’t really understand, the Country Doctor decided to go with me.  Together we headed for the boonies of Arkansas.  We wound up and down twisty roads for hours climbing and then descending into a cavernous pit carved into the center of the Ozark mountains.  Darkness fell.  The gravel crunched under our tires.  Finally, we saw a sign.  It pointed us down the steepest, curviest driveway I have every encountered.  My pulse quickened and my palms began to sweat as we descended to the retreat center.  I am always nervous about meeting new people and the perilous driveway was making it worse.
It was pitch black when we arrived.  We parked our gummy bear encrusted mini-van off the narrow drive and hiked towards the one building that was emitting a faint light.  We walked into a tiny kitchen that was packed with organic food stuffs and heaps of hand crafted coffee cups, while the smell of a ferocious black coffee brewed on the back burner.  From the kitchen we walked into an octagonal shaped hall that would be the main meeting room for our stay.  
The rest of the work-shop attendees were already gathered and seated in a large circle around the perimeter of the room.  They were mostly men… in their forties and beyond.  A few had brought their wives or significant others and they were listening to a small woman with bushy gray hair give some instructions on the use of the facilities of which she was the proprietor.    
“Please feel free to use the hot tub,” she said, “It is located over by the Lunar Meditation Hut.  It would be great if you only lifted one side of the lid if there is only one or two of you using it.  If there are more than two people using it, you can take the entire lid off.  I would really prefer that you don’t wear clothing in the hot tub.  The detergents from your clothing tends to pollute the water and the threads clog up the filter…”
Don’t wear clothing in the hot tub… don’t wear clothing in the hot tub… don’t wear clothing in the hot tub...
At this point, the room was very quiet.  I was sitting next to the Country Doctor and I knew that if I looked at him, I would bust a gut laughing, so I bit down hard on the inside of my cheeks and stared straight ahead.  All I knew is that I would be staying as far away from the Lunar Meditation Hut and the nearby hot tub as I possibly could.
The evening progressed.  We kept our clothing on.  We were introduced to the folks that were leading the workshop. Two artists that I knew from the Walnut Valley Bluegrass festival were teaching as well as an artist with whom I was unfamiliar.  I will call him “Fabio”.
Fabio was a long time fixture in the realm of singer/songwriterdom.  He had played and sang with just about every major act of the sixties and seventies from Bob Dylan to Rambling Jack Elliot and he loved to talk about it.  Over the course of the weekend I would become more familiar with Fabio’s songwriting journey than I was with my own.   After a short exhibition of his mad skillz, ( he was truly a great guitarist and performer) Fabio announced that we would now go around the room and everyone would play a song for the group.  
The group was large for a “song pull”… probably twenty five people with guitars.  If each person played a three minute song, plus the accompanying set-up story,  throat clearing, jitters, false starts, and the inevitable writer who would chose to play a ninety three minute song with twelve hundred verses, fourteen instrumental breaks, and rotating bridges, we were in for a long night.  I tried to get comfortable, quietly fiddling with the tuning on my guitar in between songs, until it was my turn.
One writer introduced a “sing along” that went like this…
“Armistice Day… Armistice Day… Be careful what you do on Armistice Day…”
It was a deadly serious song about two kids that had died in an explosion on… Armistice day.
He would sing a verse about the two kids and then we would all join in…
“Armistice Day… Armistice Day… Be careful what you do on Armistice Day…”
Then he would sing another verse and we would all join in again…
“Armistice Day… Armistice Day… Be careful what you do on Armistice Day…”
and one more verse and one more chorus…

“Armistice Day… Armistice Day… Be careful what you do on Armistice Day…”

Later, another somber tune was presented that told the story of a man who wanted to be a woman.  It was a song about fighting stereotypes and it went something like this…
A woman can shave her legs….
And a man can shave his face…
But what if you don’t know which one you are…
What if you don’t know which one you are…
And a woman can nurse an infant
And a man can nurse a beer…
But what if you don’t know which one you are…
What if you don’t know which one you are…
I struggled mightily to stay in the required somber mood for the duration of that tune.  I dug my fingernails into my palms until they started to bleed so that the intense pain would keep me from cracking into bits. 
Most of the people at the retreat were not songwriting veterans.  In fact, several of them were brand new to both songwriting and guitar playing, but this did not stop them from contributing.  Spurred on by Fabio, they boldly stood up and played the two or three chords they knew while trying to remember the words to their favorite Beatles tune. 
It was always a Beatles tune.  
I listened to more Beatles tunes on that weekend than I have in the rest of my life put together.
I don’t remember what song I played for the group in that first gathering.  It is always hard to pick one tune that introduces your music to other writers.  I hope I chose a fast paced funny song, as that group really needed one by that time, but I honestly can’t recall.
 
Finally, the last Beatles song was sung and the meeting broke up.  The Country Doctor and I staggered down the stairs of the deck outside the octagonal meeting hall to find our room.  It was located directly underneath the main hall.  The structure was built into the side of a hill, so our room was like a “walk out basement”.   To access our room we walked through a sliding glass door and stepped into a cozy space constru

cted from an adobe like material.  The walls were sculpted into shapes and shrines and large busted figurines.  Colored glass was placed into the adobe walls at random.  Our bed was a loft-like platform built into the back wall of our room.  We spread out our sleeping bags and I looked to see if I could shut the curtains on the sliding glass door.  There were no curtains.  Then we noticed a large opening in the wall beside our bed which allowed us to look straight into the room beside us.   This room was inhabited by another couple.  We stacked our suitcases in the opening, and furtively undressed inside our sleeping bags.  I fell asleep trying hard not to listen to the couple next door.  

The next morning dawned bright and crisp.  Our adobe walls glowed in a rainbow of color as the sun hit the glass.  I changed clothes inside my sleeping bag and went off to discover the wonders of the compound’s composting toilet.  When I found it, it was occupied by a tall gaunt man who looked a lot like Gandalf.  He insisted on having a conversation with me while I waited on the other side of the door for him to finish. It took him a while to finish up, so we were able to cover quite a bit of ground.
We  breakfasted on hearty whole grains which guaranteed another visit to that fabulous loo, then the workshop began.  The Country Doctor opted to go and explore the nearby area and I wistfully saw him off, feeling more alone than I have ever felt in my life.
During the workshops, we listened to Fabio expound on the many, many, many wonders of his famous musical life.  He played, he sang, he expounded, he played some more, he expounded some more.  He tried to teach me how to play a few tricky things on the guitar, but quickly gave up.  The morning session ended, the Country Doctor returned and we decided to hike with the group further down into the canyon as there were swirling rumors of a swirling vortex.  
After a precipitous descent, we reached the vortex and I bravely went and stood inside.   Nothing happened… but I am sure that is because of the strictures in my spirit and the scorn in my heart.  Also, I was wearing make-up, deodorant and clothing from the Gap.
We hiked further along the stream at the bottom of the canyon.  We came to a bend in the river and here Fabio struck a dramatic pose with one foot on a small boulder.  He was wearing a denim shirt and his white wavy hair was brushed back from his forehead.  He gestured dramatically to all the forest and fauna around him and began to weave a tale of his sighting of the rare and once thought extinct ivory billed woodpecker.
We oohed and aahed respectfully over his mystical connection with everything in the universe.  One lone writer had the courage to question Fabio’s sighting in a slightly sarcastic joking manner.   Fabio stared down his critic with the woeful gaze of the poet extraordinaire, his white hair blowing in the breeze.  We turned back towards the vortex and climbed out of the canyon.  
The rest of the weekend was more of the same… which was a sameness that was so far from sameness that I have not been the same since.
Every once in a while, in memory of Fabio, the Country Doctor will strike a dramatic pose, place his foot atop a rock and begin to expound on something rare and wonderful.   Suddenly we are both transported back through the vortex into the hippie compound with the composting toilet and the glowing glass walls.  Fabio sings to us and we are cleansed and renewed and suddenly very anxious not to walk past the hot tub and wondering if we know who we are… what if we don’t know who we are… what if we don’t know who we are…
 

Comments

  • Lynda Maniscalco:

    Dear Rechelle,
    Thanks so much for this delightful story!!! I am from the Fayetteville area and I found this to be so funny but also true….Northwest Arkansas is a strange place. A rare combination of good ‘ole country folks and fascinating but weird refugees of the 60′s. I loved your blog and will continue to follow….
    I live in Alabama now. Thanks for bringing me back home for a few moments!!
    Lynda