I must have been 13, maybe 14. In Calcutta. I’d never lived anywhere else, something that wouldn’t change for a decade or so. I was sitting in a friend’s house, listening to a “new” album by someone whose music I’d only recently discovered. Elton John. The new album was called Tumbleweed Connection. The song I was listening to was Where To Now, St Peter?
Until then, all I’d heard of Elton John was a couple of songs from his second, eponymous, album. I don’t think I’d ever seen an Elton John album until that day. [In India, those days, the way you listened to modern music was on the radio. Then, slowly, cassette tapes of new albums would permeate their way in to the country, albums left strewn around as visiting hippies traded their possessions in order to find themselves. Occasionally a diplomat or a multinational executive would head back home, and those in the know would rush for the bargains as they sold the possessions they no longer wanted. Some time later, the Gramophone Company of India would step in and release the album locally.
So I hadn’t seen an Elton John album until I saw the Katyals’ copy of Tumbleweed.
I’d never seen a tumbleweed either. And it wasn’t as if there was an internet for me to go to in order to find out. I could (and did) look up the dictionary. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, to be precise. And I was told “A type of plant that snaps off above the root, curls into a ball, and rolls about in the wind”. That’s what it said. Intriguing, but I still had no idea what a tumbleweed was. Maybe it was something the hippies wanted. Give me some tumbleweed. Hold the tumble.
Then, not long later, I found myself with a copy of James Taylor’s fabulous Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Suitably bashed and scratched, having made its way round Sudder St and Kyd St and Free School St, meaningful for those who remember the Calcutta of the time. We did something strange those days. We used to listen to whole albums. And so I heard Highway Song.
“… the one eyed seed of a tumbleweed in the belly of a rolling stone”. Now that really helped me understand what a tumbleweed was, didn’t it?
I was deep into discovering Laurel Canyon at the time, though I didn’t know it at the time. When you’re listening to a C90 BASF cassette with usually nothing more than a scribble of the album and artist name on the side, there isn’t a lot to go on. Track listings were a luxury; sometimes you had the actual album in your hands, but that didn’t mean you saw any liner notes. Far Eastern imports did away with all that stuff, you had paper-thin covers encased in even thinner polythene with blurred images of what passed for the album cover.
Where was I? Oh yes Laurel Canyon. The Mamas and the Papas. The Doors. Carole King. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in their various permutations and combinations, solo, duo, trio and quarter. And of course Joni Mitchell.
There I was, quietly listening to the album. Wait a minute! … but I know my needs/my sweet tumbleweed…. Here we go again. What was it with these people? First Elton John, then James Taylor, then Joni Mitchell. These tumbleweeds were beginning to follow me. [I didn’t know at the time that Joni had been dating James at some point then. Otherwise I may have thought that tumbleweed was something you could catch].
Things quietened down for a while after that, tumbleweed-wise. I had to wait till Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first “posthumous” album, Skynyrd’s First… And Last. I think it would have been their fifth. I didn’t even know that album existed until I came to the UK in 1980. But I found myself listening to it, and there it was again.
Like a restless leaf in the autumn breeze,
Once, I was a tumbleweed.
Like a rolling stone, cold and all alone,
Livin’ for the day my dream would come.
In classic truth-stranger-than-fiction style, the next time I would come across the word was when I was listening to someone who Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t think too much of, to put it mildly. Neil Young, with Don’t Cry.
Actually that’s not true. It was the next time I came across the word in lyrics of a song.
But something happened in between.
In 1984, I went to see a fabulous film by a guy called Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas. Brilliant. With Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, et al. Music by Ry Cooder. Unmissable. Check the trailer out.
Guess what. I saw my first tumbleweed. Now I finally knew what one looked like. More than a decade after coming across the world, having moved countries, continents.
That’s not a still from the film. It’s taken from a blog called Blue Mesa, more specifically from a post on …. tumbleweed racing.
Fast forward to this weekend. Since watching Paris, Texas, I’d visited the US for the first time, been to Texas for the first time, and even seen a tumbleweed IRL.
I was done with tumbleweeds. I’d heard about them, heard them in songs, read about them, seen them in movies and then seen one. I was done.
Until this weekend. Until I read this article, regurgitated somewhere in my feed, about the Mine Kafon.
Mine Kafon. Go visit the site, folks, and see what you can do to help.
“Tumbleweed” designed to spot landmines. What a brilliant idea.