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37 Objects Zager and Evans

If you were alive and sentient in 1969, you couldn’t have missed the song “In the Year 2525,” which spent six weeks on Billboard’s Top-100 chart, ultimately selling more than five million copies.

If you were a Nebraskan then, you remember how proud we were that Zager and Evans were native sons.

Maybe we felt a little famous along with them.

The song still has the ability to transport you back to a heady summer 50 years ago, when humans took their first steps away from Earth and things were changing quickly.

In this future "everything you think, do and say is in the pill you took today.” In this future, “man” had “taken everything this old earth can give, and he ain't put back nothing.”

The song became part of the soundtrack of its time.

Rick Evans had written “In the Year 2525” five years before he and Denny Zager (of Lincoln) recorded it.

It sold so rapidly here that it caught the attention of the major record labels. A bidding war ensued, followed by radio, television, and concert tours.

Rick, still in his twenties, found himself set for the rest of his life, which meant, to him, that he’d never have to work at a job that didn’t interest him (“I couldn’t sell shit to a dung beetle,” he'd say). It helped that Rick “happened to enjoy relatively simple things: music, the sky, and ‘spacing.’”

They tried to follow it up without success. What song could approach the heft of “You pick your son, pick your daughter too, from the bottom of a long glass tube.”

The song continues to be played today. You may have heard it in "Alien 3," or on a TV variety show. In 1993, an Asian techno-pop group climbed Japan’s Top-40 list with it. According to Wikipedia, “In the Year 2525” has been covered at least 60 times, in seven languages.

I’d seen Rick only once since the days when we were Lincoln’s “Rick and Pam” music duo in the early 1970s, but we’d maintained and enhanced our friendship through a few long letters each year.

I recently learned that he’d died of natural causes in his home near Santa Fe in February of 2018. As keeper of more than 75 typewritten pages from him, I believe that I might be the only person on the planet who knows much about Rick’s post-2525 life. 

Rick’s observations about society were often scathing, but also filled with a sort of mystified affection. Things that interested others baffled him. The country club? Football? Why?

Rick grew up loving all things science, especially astronomy and the prospect of space travel. And for some reason, he was partial to insects. I remember a summer when he went outside every day in search of live food for his praying mantis, and my surprise at the guilt he seemed to feel when the grasshopper he’d caught proved stronger.

More than anything, Rick enjoyed his own mind, his own far-reaching imagination. He was more comfortable with solitude — months of it — than anyone I’ve known. Why would he prioritize socializing with people who talked about “window treatments” when he could be in the “zone,” a state of mind not so conducive to camaraderie?

He felt misunderstood, but had little interest in explaining himself. He did note, however, that he enjoyed our exchanges of letters in part because they amounted to chances to be heard. The following passage comes from a letter dated June 14,1990:

“Maybe nobody is understood except for occasional ‘understand bites.’ Example: you’re in a movie theater and something draws your audible response. Fifty others respond likewise. You’ve got a ‘we understand’ bite. Relish in it for the moment.”

Above all, Rick lived to be creative. His childhood violin lesson ambition came and went quickly; Rick preferred making up his own tunes to learning those of others. As he said, he didn’t feel a need to achieve proficiency in order to create. By the time he had mastered three chords, he said, he was writing music — "horribly, but writing. By the time I got a band going I had the urge to get into the studio and start creating. None of the band members ever thought they were ‘ready.’ I had to drag them in there.”

In 1996 he wrote that in the midst of being “super lost” in Louie, a novel he’d been writing, he found himself hungry. (“Food is a necessary ingredient for staying alive; one has to be involved with it from time to time.”) He writes, “After I entered the grocery, it occurred to me that I wasn’t all that sure why I was there. Well, I bought a chicken. I already had one. Then when I left the building I didn’t know where I had parked or even which vehicle I had come in, so I walked around the lot for about an hour trying to get a grasp on things — totally unable to get the flowings of Louie out of my mind.”

And Rick was fascinated by “any given 16, 17, 18th century sailing ship. Fids, breasthooks, flying jibs, clues, tacks, sheets, trennels, braces, lifts, thwarts, cable, shroud/hawser rope lays …”

I have a copy of a 1985 "Model Ship Builder" magazine. The cover photo features a stunning model of a Chinese junk. Rick had built it (and other world-class model ships) using authentic materials, exactly to scale, in painstaking, accurate, detail. His article inside is a wonder, complete with diagrams, and advice.

Why did this interest him? He didn’t know, except that he enjoyed figuring out ways to put things together. I’m still searching for other magazine articles he’d written, and hope to discover what museum holds some of his archives.

Rick had dropped out of Nebraska Wesleyan in the early 1960s to play with the Eccentrics, considered to be “one of the best rock groups ever to come out of Nebraska.” Their bouffant hairdos were, indeed, eccentric.

After Zager and Evans’ fame faded, Rick spent a few years playing with me (“a 17-year-old high school girl with the voice of an angel”) and then went on to solo occasionally, in Lincoln, and then as he roamed the country looking for a place to land.

He played his last gig somewhere around Lake Tahoe on New Year’s Eve, 1984. He continued to write songs, and even shopped some around Nashville, though, as he said, he couldn’t work up much fire in the belly for it.

Rick never lost interest in the music itself, though, and his letters are rich with observations. He often sent cassettes containing examples of whatever interested him at the moment. A Chuck Berry song might be followed by the Brahms requiem. I first heard Luciano Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma” on one of these tapes.

Rick especially delighted in finding songs that weren’t plain old love songs, “The Living Years,” for example, and especially Don McLean’s “Vincent.”

As a non-traditional (older) piano student at UNL on the “seven-year plan,” I loved our exchanges on differences and similarities between classical and contemporary music. One exchange must have started with my waxing about the subtleties of a Beethoven sonata I’d been working on, perhaps maintaining that most classical music is more musically sophisticated (chord structure, tonality) than most rock music. (By the way, please don’t make me choose.)

Rick wrote that when one really listens, no matter what kind of music, “an understanding of the music’s ‘purpose’ begins to emerge, and emotional subtleties reveal themselves, just as in your Beethoven sonata. A flurry of screaming guitar notes is not just a bunch of screaming guitar notes except to someone who refuses to try to understand—just as a flurry of counterpoint from a string quartet is not just a bunch of single melodies going in all directions except to a closed-minded yak.”

And this gem: “Music is an audio display of our love affair with organization presented in a way that responds to our complex emotional dictates.”

He wrote that “The players who are ‘getting it right’ with rock are every bit, if not more, in tune with the business of expressing honest human emotion; maybe even more so than with the players of the more refined types of music such as classical, because they are playing their music, not interpreting someone else’s.”

He mused that we only can attempt to reproduce the sound that Chopin, say, intended. There’s no way to know, really. “One thing for sure, though,” he wrote. “Our very best attempts at rock are exactly that. There’s none better than that which is labeled the best at this very instant.”

He continued, “A top-40 hit tune can be a sort of miniature masterpiece in its own way. Once it’s reduced to vinyl it can never be exactly reproduced. It’s a very short-lived mirror of what’s going on at the moment. And, most importantly maybe, it’s concocted by musicians and other assorted creative souls, be they ever so ill-trained, who are, nevertheless, quite attuned to the very ‘now’ rather than the very ‘then.’ ‘Louie Louie’ will not go away.”

I’ve long since recycled stuff I’d been saving to send to Rick, but I still find myself thinking of things I want to run by him. He’d have loved the article I clipped about a truck mishap that resulted in a highway covered with pork intestines. And what did he think of “American Idol?” (I suspect morbid fascination.) The next election? Dark matter? Craft beer? Memory?

I miss my old friend. If you had known him, you’d miss him too.

I could have told you, Vincent

This world was never meant for one

As beautiful as you.

-- Don McLean

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.

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