My girls couldn't believe that I actually kissed another woman. My wife kept the thing in perspective. It happened, after all, on the little screen, and I had been acting. The director made me do it.
The woman had a mane of red hair. We were standing in the snow at sunset after having skied together across the hills outside her Sierra cabin. We wore leather boots and free-heel skis and tailored woolens that would have looked right on Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert. The year was supposed to be 1943, or thereabouts, and we were saying goodbye before I was shipped out to war.
All of this emerged from the fertile imagination of Gary Burden, a Ridgway, Colo., neighbor of mine in the early Eighties. Burden had a line of platinum record albums on his garage wall, albums for which he had done the cover design, albums by Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps, which he also produced.
By 1985, Burden had become interested in directing music videos. MTV and VH1 were taking off, and the art form combined his love of music and facility with images. Burden and his buddy Dan Fogelberg decided to work together on "Go Down Easy," a haunting ballad on Fogey's High Country Snows release. Fogelberg was and still is an enthusiastic skier. He keeps a house within powder-morning striking distance of Wolf Creek in southern Colorado, even shows up unannounced some nights at the Mud Pub in Pagosa Springs with his guitar. Burden had an idea for the "Go Down Easy" script that would unite Fogey's love of skiing with the sport's romantic prewar era.
The song, written by Jay Bolotin, starts out: "Linda lost a lover in the early part of autumn/And she moved out to the country hoping all would be forgotten . . ." and proceeds to tell how, below the surface of Linda's peaceful mountain life, chopping firewood, cooking and making jewelry, memory inevitably intrudes on every attempt at intimacy. "Her friends are sometimes lovers/Though there'll always be another/She thinks about when nighttime lays on down." Burden came up with a wonderful history for Linda and an ingenious way to connect Fogelberg to it.
We see a figure striding on cross-country skis toward the camera. It's Fogelberg in contemporary dress. A storm is brewing. But as wind-blown snow threatens to envelope him, he comes upon a long-abandoned cabin. He breaks in, builds a fire and discovers a packet of old, sepia-toned photographs and letters. By firelight, he scans the pictures, imagining the story they tell and lip syncing the words: ". . . The last time that I saw her she was making sure the winter wouldn't come through that old door frame where the door is several inches from the ground, the cold hard ground . . . ."
Fogelberg conjures the young lovers and the cabin in its prime. (Location scouts had found a perfect site off Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe.) The couple carves telemark turns, figure eights, like hearts carved on a tree trunk, down a nearby hill. They fall into one another's arms, laughing.
Penelope Street, a pioneer freestyler, telemarker and Sun Valley native, played Linda. She also brought the costumes, authentic ski outfits-honey-colored wood skis, wool pants and aluminum poles with baskets the size of LPs-from the days when Sun Valley was the first great, and oh-so fashionable, ski destination. Burden tapped me to play the young man, drafted into the service and not long after, killed in action.
Fogelberg reads and imagines Linda reading the letter from the War Department. She's alone on the cabin porch. The camera zooms in to reveal a tear coursing her cheek. Fogey sings the chorus: "And it's hard to go down easy/And it's hard to keep from crying/And it's hard to lose a lover in the early part of autumn." The scene required several takes, and every time Penny came through with real tears. I was so impressed. "It's easy," she said, smearing her makeup. "I just think about someone mistreating an animal, and that makes me cry."
There's a party scene where Linda shies away from the revelry. ("She sits down to the table/With her friends and several others/And she tries real hard to never be alone.") And a scene in which she imagines me in the bed, and when she turns again to look, I've vanished.
My copy of the video was lost years ago. I loaned it to an editor who wanted to see it and then had it disappear from his desk. So, my memory is as hazy as the smoke in Fogey's fireside scenes. (We never could get the damper to work right. Fogelberg about suffocated, but the gauzy effect looked great on film.) I do remember that for those couple of days Penny really became Linda, and that was inspiring as well as a little bit scary. I also remember the cinematographer, L.A. Johnson, saying "Never better! Never better!" after each shot. And the time he ordered my nose hairs trimmed in a scene that was photographed through a screen door.
Friends reported for years afterward that they'd catch the video now and then on VH1. (It was way too tame for MTV.) The whole thing seems like a dream now. Like a brief, long-ago encounter, à la The Bridges of Madison County, that memory doubts really happened. A movie illusion that nevertheless left indelible tracks.