Robert James Waller Remembered Fondly

  • Posted on Mar 19, 2017

Published in this morning's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.  
           

            So much of what I know about Robert James Waller comes from memory.  Recent direct experiences have been spotty, mostly via email, and then only occasionally.  We’ve often gone for months at a time with no communication due to distances and general busyness. 

            The first half of our friendship, from late 1961 until the mid-1980s, consisted of finding, arranging, and performing songs we loved. It was all great fun because we gravitated toward intensely poetic lyrics and ballads, and our voices blended well.  We often played Waller’s songs, and they were among our most-requested pieces.         

            As our lives grew more complex with fewer shared interests, we gradually moved on. 

            He became more of a jazz musician and certainly more of a writer, beginning with his Des Moines Register columns and moving into longer essays and fiction, the first novel being his blockbuster “Bridges of Madison County.”  He kept writing, too, and his novels continued selling, though nothing reached the wild popularity of “Bridges.”     

            Our post- “Bridges” friendship was less intense.  When he did visit the area from his Texas ranch, we got together for lunch or dinner, and sometimes even sang a few of the old songs.   

            I still well remember those songs, recorded in the mid-1980s.  We went to Catamount studios, where ace producer Tom Tatman recorded, in one day, eight of Waller’s songs.

            His songs were full-on poetry, with complex stories and melodies that still challenge listeners with their density and soaring mystical visions.

            For a time he even wondered whether he could make it as a songwriter, and traveled to Nashville with melodies in hand.  Producers there told him his songs were not commercial.  “Go home and be a college professor,” they told him. “We’re selling toothpaste.”

            So he did, but I have little doubt that had some enterprising producer taken a chance, we’d all remember Waller’s songs. 

            Little known fact:  “Bridges” was a song before it was a novel. 

            It was a long lyric called “North Dakota Transfer,” about a powerful erotic tryst between a farm wife whose husband was on the road and an itinerant harvest worker who falls for her:

She was sweet apple blossoms, in her old faded jeans,

Forty-five years old, and shinin’ like the sun,

And the touch of her hand on your face was like a breeze

Blowin’ sweet and clear when the long day is done.

            The smitten couple endure a bittersweet parting.  A few years later, Waller fleshed the story out, set it in Iowa, made the harvest worker a photographer, and the rest is his story. 

            He succeeded as a writer far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Yet he also created a set of memorable songs, just as potentially popular as his fiction.

            As a friend, he left a legacy of warm memories of laughter, long talks into the night, and performing for large and loyal audiences.

            He sought modesty.  As he wrote in his final book “The Summer Nights Never End—Until They Do,” “We come, we do, we go—nothing more, and that’s about as serious as we ought to take ourselves.”     

            Robert James Waller certainly came, did, and went, and now his old friends and fans seriously remember him, fondly. 

 

 

Posted in
  • Nostalgia
  • Personalities
  • Music
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