A friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to a version of Shambala a bit ago. I can (and do) appreciate his posts, but for me there is only one version of Shambala. I say sorry Jim in my comment on Facebook, because Three Dog Night’s Shambala was part of an 8-track of hits that they played at the Wichita County swimming pool (Leoti, KS) in 1976 (had to be 76. Summer of the bicentennial. Cross-country bicyclers hanging in the city park. Crazy year) and I had just learned to swim a few summers previously. Swimming was my first love, and I say that as someone who just celebrated his 25th year of marriage, to someone I’m still deeply in love with; but even so, swimming remains my first love, a communion with nature itself for me.
Spending a carefree afternoon at the pool, eating icees and listening to music that wasn’t played anywhere else, as far as I could tell, was as close to pure joy that child me ever experienced. We waited for the pool to open, and for the weather to get warm enough that you didn’t freeze, and then every single day that I could get away, I’d ride my Spyder down to the pool (got a ten speed later. Bicycling was my second love) and stay all day if I could get away with it.
In rural Kansas the only radio stations you could pick up reliably were country stations. I can listen to just about any kind of music, so Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Merl Haggard and of course Johnny Cash (who was a ‘bad boy’ in my mother’s eyes if I remember correctly) figured highly in rotations for the stations that my parents tuned when I was a child, and I didn’t mind.
But the pool was supervised by high school students (with maybe a school coach checking in now and again) so the sound system they rigged up only played their music. The intro riff to Shambala plays, and I can smell the steam coming off the concrete decking, taste the ice cream, remember what it was like to be carefree.
It’s a weird coincidence that I remember the song at all. The other song that I remember them playing I rediscovered long ago; it had a catchy refrain about a shaker of salt, and while I couldn’t ever figure out what he wanted salt for (I was pretty sure at the time I was hearing it wrong, water in the ears or something) I did eventually discover the song was Margaritaville, and I have been a parrothead ever since.
The weird coincidence? I was watching LOST with the Wife. She had gotten me interested in the show, and it became a bit of a weekly ritual to catch each episode as it aired. It was a pretty good episode we were watching that night. Season 3, episode 11. You know the one, if you were a fan. The episode was largely focused on two of my favorite characters in the show, Charlie and Hurley. Hurley was certain he was cursed, that the numbers he used to win the lottery, the numbers that were on the hatch, those numbers had been a curse that had followed him and doomed him to this quasi-life he was experiencing on the island. Here is the crucial scene of the episode;
The song comes up, and the memory hits me like a blow to the head. THAT SONG! I remember that song! It was like a trip to the past, so powerful it brought tears to my eyes (it still can) mom and dad were still happy together, Gramma & Grampa still breathing and living just a few blocks away to save me if I needed saving. The world was bright and full of promise…
…That was my Shambala. That time when everything was perfect (even though it never could have been as perfect as you remember it) all of the people you knew caught like insects in amber and preserved to be revisited. Like a mid-season, mid-run episode for a series that ended up going nowhere, but damn it was good in those few seasons where there was still mystery to be explored.
Except you really can’t go back there, because it never really existed in the first place. The rot was already present, present from the time before I was even born. Rot just festering there, waiting to let everything tear apart. Now that I’ve started losing my hearing, even the song itself is a memory that I replay. I can’t really hear it like I did then, echoing off the hot concrete I would rest my head on to make my barely functioning sinuses open up and drain.
But the memory of the song is like a siren…
“Everyone is lucky, everyone is so kind, on the road to Shambala”Three Dog Night, Shambala
This version was danceable, so I will give it a plug. The song being set to a danceable beat is about the only way you can improve on the original. H/t to Stonekettle for posting it.