Let Your Freak Flag Fly

An iconic old childhood song played in my head all morning. I finally slowed down, listened to the lyrics and realized what it was saying to me, from the culture of a certain subset of my elders that I am so sad to lose.
One morning I woke up and I knew
you were really gone
A new day, a new way, and new eyes
to see the dawn.
Go your way, I’ll go mine
and carry on
The sky is clearing, and the night
has cried enough
The sun, he come, the world
to soften up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice
but to carry on

I was in Minneapolis for a memorial service this weekend. Goodbye to a beautiful firey Swedish-American working class beatnik/hippie freak/back to the lander who was my late mother’s best friend of 50 years. A genius gardener who even gardened the woods, a mother whose youngest son (age ~50) compared her loss to that recent photo of a black hole at the center of the galaxy. Only, I think he said “universe,” because he meant his.

Grief is love with nowhere to go, someone recently said to me. Have to find fresh outlets and exercise for that love, and one good and tested path is to emulate the things you most miss about the dead.

Déjà Vuthat whole gorgeous moody country hippie 1970 period piece, will always remind me of my Free To Be, You And Me childhood ideals. The third track , “Almost Cut My Hair” was the first place I ever heard the phrase “letting my freak flag fly.” In the 70s, that song just sounded like a stack of wink-wink parental inside jokes. It opened to me through the years, along with the understanding of why everyone passed around a single hand-rolled cigarette at my uncle’s house, instead of smoking a normal one apiece.

Decades later I finally noticed the similar lyric in the earlier song “If 6 Was 9” on Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 Axis, Bold as Love, which was also in my mom’s enormous record collection. Before I tuned into that, I’d heard the same phrase referenced in “How Can I Sing Like A Girl,” by TMBG (Factory Showroom, 1996) which goes for pure metaphor, no mention of a hippie haircut.

I am deeply fond of “Almost Cut My Hair.” Sometimes you feel tired and scared and have second thoughts about how you’re sticking out from the norm, you think you should tone it down, straighten out, get with the program…

But I’m not giving in an inch to fear,
Cause I promised myself this year,
I feel, like I owe it, to someone.

When people die, it’s an opportunity to be kind to their memories, forgive their worst, and love them for their best. Thank you dear women who broke so radically from how you were raised, and paid dearly for that break sometimes. Flew your freak flags high, danced all night, read stacks of library books, created beauty all your own, raised food and flowers and most of the kids within reach, swore without shame, protested evils at every opportunity even though you never got the fucking ERA, kept learning and arguing and changing your minds, stuck to your unfashionable beer, and always had some love and an open fridge for a guest or six. I’ll have to carry on. “Love is coming to us all.”

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They’ve been going in and out of style

I was born in September, 1967, right after the Summer of Love. When I was a kid, I figured that made me an actual child of the 60s.

My parents were not hippies, but they met in the midst of the Minneapolis folk blues scene, and they certainly had a lot of interesting friends.

In 1967, they were living in Ankara. They only got new records when friends and co-workers brought them back from the USA and UK. Whenever those records arrived, they  had a party.

When Sgt. Pepper arrived, the party went over 24 hours. They just kept turning it over. Mom was past 8 months pregnant with me, and along with everyone else she danced all night to that one record. She got broken glass in her foot and didn’t notice. She had a good time.

After I was born, she says when I got fussy, if she put that record on I would quiet down and listen. If I was tired, it would put me to sleep–I would go out with that final chord.

I still have no objectivity about this record, or not much. I go years without listening to it, but it’s part of my brain, I still have it memorized in detail, in depth.

She always said that her original copy, printed in the UK, had the sound of a cocktail party on whatever you call the final groove that winds toward the center label, and is usually blank. Some later party guest walked off with that copy, and her replacement didn’t feature that extra. After she died, I found a copy that does. It’s not a cocktail party. But it makes all the sense in the world that she remembered it that way.

None of you will sleep here.

It’s been a dark week. Today I realized I’d been hearing this song in my head for hours.

I started listening to my mother’s collection of musicals, mostly from her brief frightening time in 1950s NYC, when I was about twelve or thirteen. I liked the dark ones best, a taste that would only intensify over the next few years. I especially remember being deeply in love with Lotte Lenya in the 1950s NYC production of The Threepenny Opera, and her “Pirate Jenny.”

I identified with this song to a degree that gives me a different set of chills, listening to it now. But I know I was far from the only adolescent girl to be enraptured by that fantasy of total revenge. Things had been going very badly for me for a few years, and people were always telling me to smile, because I was so pretty when I smiled…and damn the rest of me.

I don’t recall that anyone commented on my attraction to stories of horror and destruction.

I knew life would be better when I grew up, and I was right. But the attraction is still there. And now I have an adolescent girl who loves them too.

There’s a few videos of this song online, not to mention all the covers. Back in the 80s I was in love with the English language recording, made when Lenya was over 50, with an expressive acting style, and a lower vocal register. Here’s one TV performance.

But looking it up, I ran across this German version from the 1931 film and was even more struck by it. Her piercing girl’s voice, her frozen face and posture. Mac the Knife sliding in to watch.