by Marcus Parsons
Recently, while pandemic-puttering around my house, I came across a record album and cassette of songs I wrote, performed, and recorded in the 1970s and early 80s. I was a professional musician then, mostly a singer-songwriter-guitarist, also a rock band leader, hand drummer, studio musician, and singing prospector (a part I played in a movie out West, with a burro as companion).
That was long ago. I was in my early-20s to mid-30s, living in a different time and circumstance. But I think the songs may have some life in them for the here-and-now.
If you’d like to listen, I’ve posted some below.
The first song, Sad-eyed Lady, comes with a story — a performer’s intro, if you will. I was never much for making such intros; I preferred to let the music speak for itself. And this intro isn’t short. But I believe the story is worth telling. See what you think.
I wrote Sad-eyed Lady for a feature film that I directed and acted in during the Vietnam War. The film was set in the Caribbean, on and around the island of Grenada, much of it aboard this classic, 137-foot, 1915-era yacht:
A few weeks into the filming, the project was cut short. The eccentric local dictator (in a speech to the U.N., he professed relationships with extraterrestrials) had heard from his spies that our performers and crew were generating excitement and admiration among the locals.
His spies were right. We were a free-spirited bunch of attractive young actors, musicians, and crew, many of us dressed in hippie regalia of the time. (I sometimes wore a white, Indian cotton shirt; pink, wide-wale, corduroy pants; sandals; and reflector shades. Sheesh.) A few of us lived on the boat, including me, but most lived in a cottage colony on the shore near St. George’s, the island’s capital town. We went to town often when we weren’t filming. There, crowds of people gathered around us and followed us through the streets smiling, laughing, and dancing, treating us like celebrities.
The dictator didn’t like that, and thought we might be a threat to his rule. One afternoon when we were filming offshore, he sent a motorboat fleet of bare-chested thugs with clubs, and uniformed police with pistols and rifles, out to our boat. They came aboard, arrested us, stole many of our valuables (watches, etc.), and, at gunpoint, hauled most of us (the shore residents) ashore and locked us up in the island’s 300-year-old stone prison.
The prison was in an historic fort perched on a clifftop at the entrance to St. George’s harbor. The lockup was a nasty place. It was maybe 20-feet square. There was no light inside except for daylight through a small barred window in the wooden door (above). There was no furniture except for a filthy pee & poop bucket in one corner. Clearly, the floor was where prisoners’ pee and poop often ended up. Anyone who didn’t want to sit down on it had to stay standing.
After several days, we made bail, which cost us all our money. Though broke, we had to stay on the island for several weeks, awaiting trial. The government sent us to live in an abandoned leper colony on a remote coast. There were no doors there, no windows, and only enough electricity for a few bare lightbulbs and an old phone. We slept on dusty concrete floors. Despite help from sympathetic natives, we never had enough to eat.
The trial was brief. We were freed, thanks to the efforts of Maurice Bishop, a charismatic, British-educated, Marxist lawyer and native of the island who had the courage to represent us. He had recently returned from London, where he had been a founder of the Legal Aid Clinic for the West Indian community in Notting Hill. (Familiar to those of you who have seen Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable new film anthology.) A few years later, as instigator of the Caribbean’s most vibrant Black Power movement, he engineered a coup, and became the island’s revered leader. He died by firing squad in a subsequent coup, which was soon followed by an anti-communist (and typically racist and xenophobic?) intervention in the tiny island by the U.S. Marines, ordered by then-president Ronald Reagan.
Another thing may have helped free us: a phone call—innocuous and entirely personal, but no doubt tapped—that my loving father, a senior U.S. Army colonel with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made to me at the time from his office in the Pentagon.
That’s the story’s end, except for this summary of the movie’s theme and storyline:
The movie is set in the (then) present day, in which many people in the U.S. have concluded that our country’s founding principles and values have been destroyed irrevocably from within. (The Vietnam War had led many of us to think along those lines.) Word spreads among some of those people that a ship, the beautiful yacht, is sailing the U.S. coasts, putting ashore here and there to pick up people who want to sail away from the U.S. and re-establish elsewhere what our country has lost.
Since all our money went to pay our bail, the movie was never completed. The song remains. It’s not a theme song; just a love song related to the movie.