Pipe Dreams

Cartoon camel with long violet eyelashes

Pipe Dreams

Words by: Tim and Frances Tompkins  |  Music by: Tim Tompkins


The Old Trickster Camel plods the hot sandy desert, bearing his weary greenhorn rider, who slumps in the saddle and gives his imagination and the devious dromedary too much rein.

Throw me on maidenhair in a riot of evergreens gone wrong.
Fold me in a river running rife with women, wine and song.
If the wit slips, mooring hitches go, will I even know?

What started as a dream, a shot at self-discovery out among the dunes, is veering clear off course
into the dizzy swoon of a heatstroke victim’s camel habitat cartoon.  (Wake up!)
The voice of reason wants to know if I’ll be returning soon.

At last as evening falls the shifty coyote camel and the delirious rider, having gone the wrong way too much of the day, stop and rest at a cool oasis. Wiggling toes in the sifting sand, water from an ancient well, windfall dates, a breeze to tousle his grit-blown hair.
He lights his pipe, takes a puff and blows slowly, 
when out of his undulating smoke ring She appears, shapely, with violet eyes and quick bare feet to dance the sultry seasons in a single breath of his parted lips. He takes her hand and leans back against a swaying palm while the moon rises out of the molten horizon.

Looking for that elusive rock upon which to build a lasting certainty,
You’ll find better answers in my dance than in intellectuality.

Up in the bright morning, long after dawn, he finds the girl missing, not a footprint, she’s gone. He sits the sly camel and sadly plods on.

Perhaps this seeker, blind to subtle signs inclined to help him find his way,
would not have sought in vain if a vision came to pay a visit and left something visible next day.
But all the fevered thinking vanished in the night like fireflies when I beheld the girl who came
to play with me and lay her not-so-subtle sign upon my chemistry.

On and on he rides, till the sand turns to dust, the barren dunes to the tufts and thickets of a salty bluff overlooking a quiet coastal town, sewn to the margin of the sea by an old rutted road that stitches the villages across the scoured leagues and the fitful centuries.
People, beasts, birds, baskets, wind-chimes, incense, gemstones, children’s laughter and hawkers’ cries.
The camel’s gone, but by surprise, the dancing girl with violet eyes.


The 5/4 cello riff sprang to life some months after the (West-Coast) Providence band recorded the Ever Sense the Dawn album (summer, 1972, Hollywood). My memory of the song’s Dorian-mode inception is hazy, but I think it soon involved my dear brother Tom and his viola. As for words, Jim Cockey – composer of Longing for Home – interrupted his practicing of a Bach violin partita to help set up a projector for his slides in a large furnace closet in the Bay Area band house, where I launched my second rite-of-passage narrative in lyric form, riding an imaginary camel this time, instead of scrabbling up a risky hill beneath circling salivating buzzards (the real scene that begins our GallopAway CD: San Juan Chickens). With the furnace quietly roaring nearby, I played and stared at the green of the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming (where Jim had attended climbing school and taken pictures) while I visualized a polar opposite location: a harsh Middle Eastern desert. About a year and a half later, the band performed the song as a comical prototype at breakneck speed in our last little tour. And in 1974 it was recorded as a video in Boise with costumes (hilarious on us) and color-key enabled scene simulations, as well as improvised bazaar (market) sound effects near the end by Barth Bishop and Bob Barriatua, a thirst quenching water reference in the dream section by Shari Rhodes on piano, and Suzanne Janes singing angelic soprano.

About three years later in Eugene, Oregon, the song was bumping along at a pace not quite so frantic, with Suzanne and me in the folk band, Prince Gabriel’s Fleet (named after our bright little son), along with the Leishman sisters, Diana and Gina, Greg “Ahimsa” Stout on tablas and Don Lax on violin. It was recorded at the 1978 Oregon Country Fair.

A few more years, and we find Frances and me in mutual discovery, to the tune of that darned five-four camel in the Art Room where we worked. Soon a new violin solo burst forth, and a few long-ossified lyrics began to change as we performed it as a duo, eventually recording it in Portland, Oregon, in 1983, around the time of our third wedding anniversary. 12 years after that, when the still-flawed song had fallen out of our repertoire, Frances and her friend Stephanie Littlewolf, both with some clear-eyed Native American blood in their veins, propelled it in a new direction with their suggestions: Stephanie urging “cut” for any lyrics that did not work, and Frances giving it a heart line: the mysterious girl with violet eyes.

Twelve more years would pass before the lurching rewrites warranted a new recording, this time in San Jose, California, 2007. The charismatic Danny “Zoot Suit” Valdez narrated the story, friendly and funny as the day is long. Tom (viola) and Andy (guitar) from the old Providence band arrived. New tablas (Salar Nader), and new winds (clarinet and zurna) by Hafez Modirzadeh. We had the right ingredients, but the session failed to gel. There were countless problems in otherwise good takes. My cello and Frances’s violin did not escape the jinx. Only Hafez on his clarinet did. Editing and mixing for weeks and months after the session turned into a nightmare, a major disappointment. I gave up and mothballed the song. I tried to hate it. We moved on to other musical projects. Years passed.

Then late one night when I was too sleepy to heed the risk of working on such a complex computer project, I opened a forgotten editing session with all four recordings of the song, each in its own track, plus many tracks of scattered clips, wondering again if I could re-chop it up and assemble it into something new. All the takes were at different tempos, levels and sound qualities, completely unsynchronized. Luckily I forgot to mute any tracks and simply hit Play. What a noise! I quickly hit Stop and sat for a moment in the silent studio while the cacophony echoed in my mind. But something interesting was going on. With the volume of each track reduced, I hit Play again. It was like an audio hall of mirrors 35 years deep. I revisited moments of hope and success as well as moments of gloom, spanning more than half my life, all at the same time. Different lyrics, different musical treatments, clashing mismatches of song sections and completely different staggered fade-outs. I sat in wonder and realized that some of this chaos must survive into the final mix, a fitting underscore to the delirious stresses of the fictional vision quest, metaphorical story of my life, including the tortuous songwriting and production of the damn song. It must not come out too clean!

The remaining eight and a half years of intermittent work until final mixing and mastering in 2018 were far from simple, but there was a clear heading; Frances and I knew when it was at long last finished. Overlaid and stretched to synch or not synch, the simultaneous vibrations from 44 years (counting the mix itself) provide a worm-hole’s glimpse into the multiverses that this musical adventure has threaded.  [Tim]

Tom, Tim, Suzanne, Andy from 1974 video of old Camel Song, KAID Studio, Boise
Tim and Frances in Pastorela costumes, Mission San Juan 2013

Performance Credits:

Tim Tompkins……………..Lead vocal, cello
Daniel Valdez………………Narrator
Suzanne Janes……………Siren choir, “girl with the violet eyes,” and final vocal harmonies
Bella Rose………………….. Siren choir
Margaret Galvan………….Siren choir
Frances Tompkins………..2007 violin (featuring the moonrise solo)
Tom Tompkins……………..Viola
Hafez Modirzadeh……….Clarinet, zurna (featuring a cosmic coda)
Andy Guzie………………….2007 guitar
Salar Nader………………….2007 tablas
Greg Stout (Ahmisa)……1970s tablas
Don Lax………………………1970s violin (sets the oasis scene)
Shari Rhodes………………1970s piano (mainly oasis water)
Diana Leishman………….1970s vocal ride-out harmonies
Bob Barriatua……………..1970s foley, especially marketplace near end
Bart Bishop…………………1970s foley, especially marketplace near end

Last recorded at Gordon Stevens’ Open Path Studio in San Jose, CA.
Mixed at the GallopAway Music studio in San Juan Bautista, CA.
Mastered by Joe Weed at his Highland Studios in Santa Cruz County, CA.

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