from The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo (Pantheon, 2022)
It’s hard for me to explain, but early Dylan, Hot Rocks: 1964-1971 by the Rolling Stones, and the Bartók String Quartets mean the winter I lived with my American girlfriend in a small converted teahouse just outside the inner walls of Zuishun-in, a sub-temple of Shōkoku-ji, one of the oldest Zen monasteries in Japan. I’d taken a room as a lay student there, allowed to practice without having to take vows or shave my head like the Japanese unsui (monks). Instead, I was asked to pay rent for my little three-mat sleeping room and took part in only a portion of the rituals, duties, and meditation sessions. That suited me fine, as I was somewhat of a tourist in the country of Buddhism, curious about it certainly, but not ready to make any sort of commitment. I’d do some light housekeeping, chant with the monks in the mornings, meditate with them when I could, but I was not obliged to maintain a full schedule of study. Zen Lite. Perfect for me. Then, I got into a clusterfuck of contradictions and ecstasies. It was my first year out of college, I was on a fellowship to write poetry, and I ran into a vivacious architecture student from Berkeley, whom I got to move in with me after a night of dancing in the clubs along Kawaramachi-Shijō, the entertainment district of Kyoto.
I’d fallen in love with her from the start, just as she stepped out of the shower at a guest house where I’d been invited to have Thanksgiving dinner with an American couple I’d just met—a poet and his wife, a distant cousin from Hawaiʻi. I was sitting around a kotatsu, a low warming table the Japanese use in winter, my hands tucked under the quilt splayed out between the tabletop and frame, when a young woman came out of the shower adjacent to the room where we were. The door opened and she walked out of it, bending quickly from her waist and throwing a cascade of honey-blonde hair tumbling forward over her head and face. She was wearing jeans and a deep red leotard and shook her head violently as she damped her hair with a towel. Then she wrapped the towel in a turban around her head, threw it all back in a whipping motion, looked up, and smiled at the gathering. There were sequins across the breast of her leotard, iridescent circles of glittering foil pressed tightly against the Danskin. I was a goner.
Her name was Nadja, a name she’d given herself, she told me, and was from Colorado, a graduate of the University of Chicago. She was in Kyoto to study temple architecture for her Master’s thesis at Berkeley, could talk about anything–Spinoza to seashells–and could read signs, maps, and menus in Japanese, though not speak it. About my height, she was a compact beauty–appealingly wide in the hips, slender at the waist, and a complete knockout going up from there. Her face was a narrow oval and the complexion even except around her cheeks, which had a slight orange glow from the prior summer. We became quick, easy friends and then lovers after one chilly night when I’d taken her dancing. We stayed in a cheap inn nearby and watched the first snowfall of the season come down at first light the next morning. After many nights sneaking late back into the temple after mongen (curfew), the priest’s wife rented us a small, eight-and-a-half-mat tea-house (called a hojō) outside the inner gates of Zuishun-in, cognizant that I wasn’t, after all, suited monastery life and needing the rent money to sustain the temple’s more important affairs.
I was still naïve about sex, knowing little beyond my limited college experience, which had been exclusively with just one lover throughout. Nadja was something else—more insouciant, expressive, and light-hearted with it–even as it was easily becoming the most profound experience of my life. But I’d kept that from her, knowing her attitude was different, having been told she’d go off, once summer came, to join her chemist boyfriend in Sweden on a Fulbright there. I tried to play it as cool as she was, but I was doing a bad job. I fell bigtime and was happy rolling with her in her ice-blue, Gerry sleeping bag full of goose down, meeting her for soba lunches, joining in saké-drinking parties with her fellow architecture students, and rolling with her in my own claret, North Face bag. We’d spend evenings reading and rolling, tittivating like baby sages while lying upon the tatami floor, exchanging stories of our childhoods, promising each other completely nothing.
When we could afford it, we went out to clubs with live music and I’d drink “black and tans,” mixing Guinness stout with light Japanese beers, while she sipped tea and read The Dream Songs of John Berryman. A lot of other guys would come around and try to meet her, but, when they’d ask what she was up to in Kyoto, she’d point to me, say “Fucking him,” and chase them off. She’d stung them so hard, the air seethed with the odor of ozone.
Most evenings, though, we’d stay inside the teahouse, reading, listening to music, and rolling around in our down bags together. I had tapes we’d play on her Wollensak recorder, a basic box with drive, speaker, and a row of plastic, push-down controls. These were cassettes my father had made for me, recorded from LPs I’d left with my parents when I’d moved out of my dorm room and left for Japan earlier that summer. Patiently, he’d recorded from analog playbacks on his own stereo in the living room. He’d sent Hot Rocks by the Rolling Stones, Rock of Ages by the Band, Live Dead by the Grateful Dead, Live at the Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers, Bartok’s Quartets, and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. They’d come by mail, of course, probably after I’d asked him for them, wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with string, expertly knotted, and covered in stamps.
By the time the tape got to “Wild Horses,” the last track on the Stones double-album, we’d have spent almost all the full night long with each other, drenched in a slick science, our souls keeping the same rhythmic time, pledging our bodies against the infinite and separate futures we both affirmed we’d have.
The song opened with Mick Taylor’s chords on an acoustic tuned Nashville-style, the three low strings tuned an octave up, then Keith Richards strummed a 12-string, and, and they joined to make an intricate tapestry with an electric slide (Richards overdubbing, I’d guess) chiming notes of a repeated figure, launching the slow dirge of this ballad, like a funeral march for a love gone wrong. Taylor switched over from chords to mostly harmonics. And then the drums, bass, and chorus came in, driving the tune, starting a heavy stomp that attenuates back into another one of Mick Jagger’s verses, sung with a plaintive twang, the drums and bass dropping off, the arrangement suddenly gone sparse as sagebrush in a desert wash. But, on one of the next verses, they’ve added a tack piano played by a session man not part of the regular group. It lent lovely fills and a honky-tonk feel, contrasting with the picked guitars, thickening the fine roux of the choruses that came after.
Nadja and I would quietly warble along sometimes, Wild horses…, meeting each other’s eyes in the glints of music that spun around us in the cold cha-shitsu room that winter in Kyoto, trying to hit the same notes as we felt for each other’s hands and fingers, hips and hair, dragging ourselves into a welter of unbuttoned jeans and shirts, odors of tea on our tongues, the unsaid arrowing the splinter of shadow in the shrinking space between us into a brilliant spear. …Couldn’t drag me away….