Soul Town, What Would I Do Without You?

There’s a guy — a cool guy — out there in Blogger World who, like quite a few bloggers, doesn’t reveal his real name. But as I say, he’s cool. How do I know? Well, anyone who calls himself Cincinnati Babyhead has got to be cool. And maybe a tad loopy too?Whatever, I dig him, though we’ve never met. But we’ve conversed with one another a lot in the comments sections of our stories, and we seem to blend like olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Like me, he’s a lover of music and film. Those are the subjects that he mostly writes about on his blog, which you can visit by clicking here. CB comes at you straight from the heart. He’s down-to-earth and nicely nitty-gritty. Go, man, go.

But hey, that’s all the free publicity I’m going to send CB’s way! I ain’t all that generous normally. What am I trying to do? Turn over a new leaf? Anyway, my reason for bringing up CB is that on January 7 of this year he wrote about a rocking song by the late, great Jackie Wilson and, as these things sometimes happen, I heard that song, Baby Workout, on the radio two days later. It’s a hell of a tune, bright and audacious and finger-snapping good. It came to me on Soul Town, one of SiriusXM satellite radio’s channels, and one that I’d be hard-pressed to live without. During a 20-minute period that day, Soul Town made my day.

When my wife Sandy and I bought our newest car six years ago, little did I know that I’d fall madly in love with SiriusXM, with which it came equipped. But I did, and quickly. So many channels! A dozen or more of them became close friends, including Soul Town, to which I listen maybe more often than any of the others. Who doesn’t like Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, to name a few of the soul and R&B artists that Soul Town plays round the clock? Huh? You in the fourth row aren’t a fan? I’ve just notified Security. They’re going to escort you out of the classroom and bar you from ever again entering a WordPress site. That’ll learn ya’!

There I was, then, returning home from the supermarket in mid-afternoon on that storied Soul Town day. I pressed the SiriusXM button and then let my right index finger tap on channel 49. My timing was perfect, as I caught the opening notes of Baby Workout, a ditty that has been with us since 1963.

I tell you, I couldn’t contain myself. I hadn’t heard the song in ages and had forgotten just how saucy and slithery it is. Jackie is coaxing a girl to join him on the dance floor, and he’s showing her his dance moves. Me, I started to move too, bouncing around in the driver’s seat like a wild man, slapping away at the steering wheel and ceiling in unusual fashion. Good thing nobody was around to see me. But uh-oh, there was. Flashing lights appeared behind me, a siren wailed righteously. I pulled over.

“Your license and registration, sir,” said Officer Bea Bopp. I handed over the documents and watched her peruse them. “What in the world are you doing? Don’t you know it’s incredibly unsightly for a septuagenarian to boogie down? Sir, you’d do well to keep your antics confined to the privacy of your own home. And there, be sure to have your shades drawn, unless you want some of your neighbors to die from laughing too hard.”

Rolling her gentle, pale green eyes, Officer Bopp handed back my papers. I thanked her and drove away.

Baby Workout was ending at this point. I was in a sweat and needed to calm down. “I’ll put on the Sinatra channel,” I said in my head, and was about to press its button when the opening, heavy piano chords of Cool Jerk came out of the speakers. Man, you’re not about to find me turning away from Cool Jerk. The song is a trip, replete with giddy whoops and hollers and hipper-than-hip lyrics. The Capitols, pretty much a one-hit wonder, nailed Cool Jerk when they entered a Detroit recording studio back in 1966. This song has never gone away. And never will.

Yeah, you guessed it. The same thing happened with Cool Jerk as with Baby Workout. I became a sight to behold within my metal cubicle. I kept glancing in the rear view mirror. Nervously. I didn’t notice any police vehicles.

Four blocks from my house Cool Jerk came to its end. But Soul Town wasn’t done with me. How do you follow-up two kick-ass numbers? The programing genius at Soul Town’s controls knew what was needed: a heady, spacey, swirling funk song that goes on and on and on. That’s what Creative Source’s 1973 cover of a Bill Withers tune is all about. Who Is He (And What Is He To You)? flowed from my car’s radio like a psychedelic dream. What was a guy to do? Pull up in front of his house, turn up the volume, keep the engine running and get out of his car, leaving the door wide open to let the music be heard, that’s what. And dance along the street with arms widespread and a beatific smile on his face.

I nearly was afloat. And I wasn’t surprised by what happened next. One, then two, then three house doors opened. My neighbors too were under a spell. Soon we all were gliding on the road, deep into the music, visiting the galaxies above.  This was a scene straight out of a movie. And it got better. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I returned to Earth and turned to see Officer Bea Bopp staring at me.

“Sir,” she said, “I’ve been following you. In my 32 years on the force I’ve never seen anyone behave like you did in your car. And now this?”

I gulped. But then she smiled bashfully. I looked into her entrancing eyes. Their soft tint went swimmingly with her blue uniform. I was sort of in love.

“Sir,” she continued, “I’m two days away from retirement. Is it against the law for an officer of the law to have some fun? It isn’t.”

She closed her eyes, held out her arms and began to groove to the music. It was a lovely sight. By the time that the final notes of Who Is He dissolved into the ethers, she had sailed to the next block. Dreams of many rosy days ahead, I imagine, were playing in her head.

(This story isn’t total fantasy. I heard those three songs on Soul Town in my car that afternoon, and CB walks among us. As for the rest . . . )

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A Frigid Classical Music Story

Man, the weather in my region of Planet Earth (i.e., southeastern Pennsylvania, USA) not only sucks right now, it has sucked for the last several weeks. You like cold? We’ve got it up the frozen wazoo, and it’s going to get worse.

I’m typing the opening salvos of this pert essay on the 4th of January at 4:30 PM. Several inches of white stuff fell from the heavens earlier today, a minor amount to be sure. Much more to the point, complaint-wise for me, is that it’s a bone-unsettling 20°F (-7°C) outside, which is on the high side of what the numbers have been since Arctic air began its southward trek into wide portions of North America last month. In the wee small hours of Saturday the 6th, the vapors around here are predicted to tip the scales at 4°F (-16°C). And 24 hours after that we can look forward to a tantalizing reading of -2°F, which computes to -19 degrees in the Celsius realm.

Where’s my bathing suit? I’m heading to the nearest beach!

Well, I’m fairly sure that this is the first time I’ve groused about the weather on the pages of this humble blog. But hell, that’s what old guys do sometimes, right? And it’s not as though I have anything better to do, unless you count as a worthy activity the many hours I’ve recently spent compulsively tying the remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head into square knots. I’m a wiz when it comes to tying square knots. Thank the stars above that the training I got eons ago as a Boy Scout went not for naught.

Still, it’s not as though the present draping of cold air should come as a surprise to those who reside far from the equator. Such was the message, in fact, from the announcer who handles the mid-morning shift on WRTI, the Temple University radio station that plays classical music for half of each weekday (6:00 AM to 6:00 PM) and jazz for the other half.

“Buck up, buckeroos. It’s winter. You’ve heard of winter, haven’t you?” is what, in effect, the announcer said a few minutes before 9:00 AM on the aforementioned 4th of January. “We’ve dealt with below-average temperatures before, yes? So, don’t panic, don’t fret. The Earth is still orbiting the Sun, and everything will be all right.”

This wise man, Gregg Whiteside, then softened his message by adding that he realizes that the current undesirable situation is highly upsetting to more than a few members of the populace. And that’s why he then cued up a piece that he assured his audience would settle their nerves and ease their worried minds. And he was right. Sitting on my living room sofa, square knots in progress, I was taken by the great beauty of Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, as performed by pianist Antonin Kubalek. I think you’ll like it, too. Here it is:

Ah, it’s a gem. But Gregg must have felt that one heavy dose of soul satisfaction wasn’t enough. When the Chopin opus reached its conclusion he wasted no time in hitting the button to send Antonin Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major over the airwaves. The composition was played by the British orchestra that goes by the name of The Academy Of St Martin In The Fields. It’s a magnificent work, as you will discover by clicking on this YouTube video:

See? Mr. Whiteside provided a temporary panacea for emotions jangled by wintry onslaughts. But let’s fast-forward a bit. It is now 10:15 AM on January 5. More than 24 hours have elapsed since Gregg advised me to make the best of it. During that time I’ve shoveled my driveway and walkways clear of the four inches of snow that I mentioned earlier. I kind of enjoy shoveling snow. Been doing it all my life.

But I don’t like the deep freeze we’ve been in day after day after day. It’s intimidating and it’s a pain in the ass, not to mention unsafe. Gregg’s musical offerings of help and warmth notwithstanding, there’s no getting around the fact that cold is cold. After I’d been at it with the shovel for an hour, completing the job at hand, my poor ol’ nose, fingers and toes were waving the white flag. Thankfully, I have a lot to be thankful for this winter, and a nicely-heated home is at the top of the list. Into said abode I went.

Just as every essay must end, so must every weather pattern. Which is to say that relief from the meteorological conditions that I’ve been bemoaning is in sight. Soon after I publish this chilling story, my neck of the woods will be emerging from the woods, so to speak, as the weather forecasters are assuring us that the thermometer needle will creep ever so slightly above the freezing mark at some point on Monday the 8th.

I’m now going to remove my fingers from the keyboard upon which I’ve been tapping away. I will relocate to the living room sofa, tune in to WRTI and attempt to undo the square knots that decorate the crown of my head. I’m tired of that look.Wish me luck. The Boy Scouts taught me how to tie square knots. But not how to untie them.

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One More Look At 2017 Before It’s Gone

It’s now 7:20 on a Wednesday morning as I sit my ass down to type this little opus. It will be my final post for the year during which Donnie Trump first sat his ass down behind the desk in the Oval Office. His ass, unlike mine, is fat. And he, unlike me, is nasty, intolerant and a pathological liar. Just sayin’.

“Hey, Neil,” my wife Sandy, who is staring over my shoulders at the computer screen as I peck away, said two seconds ago, “I thought you weren’t going to talk about Trump in this essay.”

Well, she’s right. He’s depressing. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to other topics, such as Yemen and Myanmar (the former Burma). Wait — am I nuts? The horrors going on in those regions are immense. Talk about depressing. I tell you, I’ll never understand what the story is with the human race. Actually, I do understand. Bottom line is that scads of people just don’t like scads of their fellow women and men. Never have. Never will.

“What are you doing, Neil?” Sandy just asked. “You told me 15 minutes ago that you were going to keep this story light. You know, like all the other disposable, puffy pieces that you’re known for churning out. Get back on track, boy! You’re out of your realm right now.”

Thank goodness I’m married. Okay, Sandy, let me see what I can do. Enough about Trump and hatred. Hmmm, an end-of-year story should offer some words of wisdom, shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t hurt. And though I’ve always been more than a bit low in the wisdom department, I did have a good thought or two in a recent article. Here’s what I said: “ . . . if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told.” Imagine that — me quoting me! There’s a first time for everything. Or so I’m told.

Moving right along, folks, I might do well to mention a whole lot of things that satisfactorily filled my well during 2017, excluding those I’ve previously oohed and aahed about on these pages. But to avoid being at my keyboard for the next three days I’m going to forget about a whole lot of things and limit myself to only two. Which two shall it be? Ah, yes . . .

Number one: If you want to dive into a better than average novel, may I suggest you glue your eyes to Perfume River, which came out in 2016. Robert Olen Butler, an acclaimed author whom I basically knew nothing about before almost randomly pulling Perfume River off a local library’s shelf a few weeks ago, penned the graceful volume. The book’s narrative floats easily between the near-present and the Vietnam War eras. That war impacted the lives of the Quinlan family in mega-blast ways. The book examines their plights, the decisions that brought them to where they are, and the secrets they hold from one another and, in truth, from themselves. What insights into their own makeups and into those of others are people able to gain as the years elapse? Perfume River is where to look to find a number of delicately-threaded answers to that question.

Mbongwana Star at Abington Art Center

Number two: Do you enjoy exuberant, scarily good music? Then go to see Mbongwana Star, the band from the Democratic Republic Of The Congo that melds African melodies and rhythms with blazing rock and roll. Your chances of ever catching them, though, aren’t large. The band does tour, but not all that much. That I was in their presence over the summer is, to me, rather miraculous. And their performance was, by a reeeeally wide margin, the best I took in during this expiring year.

I’d never have been at their concert were it not for Later . . . With Jools Holland, probably the best music show on television. In the early months of 2017 I caught a repeat episode (from 2015) of Later, which is taped in Great Britain, and was floored by one of the bands appearing on it. Mbongwana Star, needless to say. Their name stayed with me as the months passed. And that is why I nearly fell off my living room sofa when, in June, I saw on Abington Art Center’s website that Star was scheduled to perform on the center’s lush, rolling lawn the following month. How was this possible? How had the center even known about this band? Whatever, I wasn’t complaining. I was exalting. Abington Art Center, in the Philadelphia suburbs, is only three miles from my house.

This show was to be among Star’s final on foreign shores for 2017. Sandy and I arrived early, grabbed a good spot on the lawn for our folding chairs, and waited for the group to come on.

Well, unstoppable, roaring power blasted from the stage from the opening notes. No ballads for Mbongwana Star. Rarely do I rise from my chair at concerts to boogie, but boogie I did, heading down to within 15 feet of the stage and kicking out the jams in my inimitably nerdy, old-guy manner. It was fun of the highest order. Here’s a video of the band playing in Europe in 2015:

Besides Star’s incredible musicianship, the astounding thing to me was that two of the performers, both of whom are vocalists, are in wheelchairs, victims of childhood polio. And yet these gentlemen, dealing with profound problems, are able to celebrate magnificently through their music. Some remarkable people are on our planet, and Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambali are among them.

Like I said, I’m limiting myself to only two items. And (sometimes) I’m a man of my word. Thankfully, this article has manifested itself fairly fluidly, rather than in the fits and starts that are common for most of the pieces that I write. I take that as a good sign. And so, I now shall conclude the proceedings by wishing one and all a safe, happy and healthy 2018. A relative smattering of hours after I hit the Publish button for this story, Sandy and I possibly will be at Penn’s Landing, part of Philadelphia’s waterfront. If we’re there, we’ll gape at the fireworks being launched in the middle of the Delaware River. We’ve ushered in many previous New Years precisely like that. Let there be light.

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Santa Claus, With Keith Richards In Tow, Is Coming To Town

Keith Richards, with brisket gravy dripping down his chin like a Mount Vesuvius lava flow, couldn’t contain himself earlier this week. “Bubala, my kishka’s sendin’ out an SOS. I’m gonna plotz!” he nearly roared, beaming at my wife Sandy. “The potato latkes, the brisket, the roast chicken . . . a magnificent feast! Sandy, my tuches must be three inches wider than it was before we sat down to eat.”

Photo by Mark Seliger

We were at my and Sandy’s dining room table, gorging on a traditional Chanukah dinner. It was the eighth and final night of the holiday. “Keith, we’re glad you’re here with us,” said Sandy, the meal’s creator. “And I have to tell you that you did a wonderful job tonight lighting the candles on the menorah and an even better job saying the Chanukah prayer. Not every goy can pronounce baruch the way it’s meant to be said, with that khhhh sound grinding away deep in the back of the throat. But you, Keith, you nailed it.”

“Thanks, Sandy,” said Keith sheepishly. “I’ve been practicin’ hard.”

“Would you expect otherwise?” I asked Sandy. “I mean, Keith’s a mensch.”

Keith, my longtime friend, liked that comment. He smiled his widest smile at me. Thank you was written all over his face.

It was good having Keith at my suburban Philadelphia home. I hadn’t seen him in a real long time, though we keep up pretty regularly on the phone (you can learn how our friendship came about by clicking here). I was happy to hear from him when he called last week from his Connecticut estate. He said he needed to get away from the spotlight for a while, seeing that his plans to leave the music biz and celebrity game, which I wrote about 10 months ago (click here), had fallen through. And so, the spotlight remained blinding.

“Neil, I’d like to stay with ya for a couple days next week, if that’s all right,” Keith had said. “I can relax when I’m around ya. Your humdrum, vanilla way of living is something I kinda crave, bro.”

“Yeah, Keith-o, that’ll be cool. Come on Wednesday. And brush up on your Yiddish, okay? Remember how you got a 50-point bonus in Scrabble a few years back when you laid out all seven of your letters and spelled schmuck?” I could feel Keith basking in the glow of that memory.

“Oy gavalt!” Keith muttered into the phone. “Patti [his wife] just whispered in my ear that a reporter from People magazine is at the front door. He’s the fifth media person to show up today. One of ’em wanted to know if the Christmas season increases my sex drive. I told him ‘only when my balls are cold.’ He liked that quip. And another asked why The Stones never recorded a Christmas album. You know, that left me tongue-tied. I mean, we shoulda done one of those. We’d have knocked The Little Drummer Boy out of the ballpark. And Mick was born to sing O Little Town Of Bethlehem, don’t cha think?”

“See you soon, Keith,” I said.

The Chanukah dinner over, and Keith’s tuches looking not the least bit rock star-ish, we three retired to the living room. A Scrabble board was open on the cocktail table. We were about to start the game when, incredibly, the roof of the house shook, startling the crap out of all of us. And only 15 seconds later a lot of frantic words began to emanate from the direction of the fireplace.

“Help! I’m stuck! Give a guy a hand, you nitwits,” said the shouter, who was dangling headfirst from the bottom of the chimney. Needless to say, it was Santa Claus. He and I had bonded last year (click here), so I can’t say I was surprised to see him again. Sandy, Keith and I moseyed to the fireplace and pulled the portly gent out.

“Hello, Santa. Great to see you. What gives? Christmas Eve isn’t for another five days,” I said. “Not to mention, in case you forgot, that Christmas isn’t my holiday.”

Santa Claus shot an exasperated look my way. “I know that,” he grunted at me. Then he presented a nice and warm “Hello, Sandy” to my wife and did a double take when he saw our guest.

“Santa, Keith. Keith, Santa,” I said by way of introduction.

“A pleasure, my man,” said Keith, extending his right hand.

Santa grasped it immediately and said to Keith, “What in the world are you doing here?”

“Huh? Ya know who I am, Santa? I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Are you kidding? Of course I know who you are. Where do you think I live? Siberia? On those long sleigh rides I’m famous for, I’ve got Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street playing on repeat on my iPod. I’d never be able to complete my rounds if it wasn’t for you and your bandmates. How’s Mick, by the way? Any chance he’d consider teaching me how to dance? That boy’s got more good moves than Bobby Fischer.”

I glanced at Keith and could tell that he didn’t want to break the news to Santa that the chess champ Fischer is long gone.

“So, what brings you this way, Santa?” I asked. “Do you need some cheering up, just like you did last year?”

“I do, Neil, I do. But I’ve got a more pressing problem that I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me with. Bringing toys to millions of children isn’t easy. The average Jill or Joe wouldn’t in a million years be able to handle my job. But I’m not getting any younger, as the saying goes, and I really and truly could use a helping hand. Neil, if you’ve got nothing better to do on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, how’s about you join me in my sleigh and pitch in with the deliveries? That would be heartily appreciated.” And Santa then let rip a “ho, ho, ho” for the ages.

I didn’t want to let Santa down. But what could I do? Sandy and I would be flying south on the 24th for a six-day vacation in Jamaica. I explained the situation, and Santa, though disappointed, seemed to accept it.

“Oh well, just thought I’d ask. You and I got along so well last year, I couldn’t think of a better companion than you for the upcoming big night. No worries. I’ll get by.”

That’s when Keith Richards, who’d been listening to the conversation with mouth agape, placed his hands on Santa’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Santa Claus,” Keith said, “there is no doubt in my mind that cosmic forces of an extraordinarily wonderful essence are at play here. They brought us together in this unlikely spot tonight, and the reason is obvious.” I kind of swooned at Keith’s unexpected eloquence.

“Santa,” he continued, “you’re lookin’ at your man. I’m a fountain of energy. I’m skinny, so droppin’ down chimneys will be a breeze for me. Don’t worry about my expanded tuches, by the way. It will be back to normal size in 48 hours. And I love to deliver goods. I’ve been deliverin’ the goods all my life. Where, and at what time, do ya want to meet on Christmas Eve?”

Well, ye of good spirits, little more needs to be said. A relative handful of hours after I publish this story, a Stone shall be flying through the air, out of the media spotlight while performing his mission and happy as a lark. Christmas 2017 will go down in history as indescribably remarkable. Who’d ever have thunk it?

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The Day I Came THIS CLOSE To Sort Of Meeting John Lennon

Was I going through a period of temporary insanity back in 1973? Had the gates regulating the flow of my positive emotions gotten stuck in the closed position? Well, yeah, that’s not too far off the mark I guess. It was a long time ago, and I have trouble enough figuring out the current status of my state of being. But I’m not totally clueless when it comes to identifying where I was at, mentally and emotionally speaking, in my days of yore.

Photo by Bob Gruen

Yes, my recollections may be on the spotty side. Still, there’s no denying the fact that my brother Richie and I were standing on Broome Street (in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood) one morning or afternoon in May or June of 1973, when John Lennon, unaccompanied and moving briskly, walked past us. I was living in SoHo, and Richie, a student at Columbia University, resided way uptown.

Out of the corner of my eye I’d noticed Lennon approaching. Richie saw him too. Yet we were blasé about the situation. Neither of us made eye contact with or said hello to the guy we’d worshipped, who had been one of our ultimate heroes only a couple of years before.

I won’t speak for Richie, but I will for myself. “Yo, schmuck! What the hell was wrong with you, Neil?” I just heard myself asking myself.

Hey, give me a break! I was (pretty) young.

I recall this incident every great once in a while, but hadn’t in ages until Thursday of last week. As I was brushing away that morning’s breakfast, hardened like cement on my teeth, Lennon’s song One Day (At A Time) came on the radio and, for reasons unknown, it instantly brought me back in time. And I knew for sure that John Lennon was to be the key for the story you presently are reading when, a few hours later, I heard a radio disc jockey sorrowfully mention that the following day (December 8) would mark the 37th anniversary of John’s death. As nearly everyone knows, he was murdered by a crazed, miserable asshole outside the apartment building in which he lived with Yoko Ono on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

There are reasons why John Lennon and I more or less crossed paths. Here goes.

That long-ago spring found me, four years post-college, floundering magnificently in the game of life. My romantic prospects were nil. My meaningful career prospects were niller. My bank account had a few bucks in it, but basically was pitiful.

Pretty much unanchored, I sublet for three months, with a friend from my college years, an affordable, beautiful apartment on Broome Street in the up-and-coming SoHo section of lower Manhattan. I spent my time traipsing around the city, checking out the neighborhoods and low-cost entertainment and picking up temp work to bring in a smattering of bucks. Those were the days when you could eat cheaply, a slice of pizza being available for a mere 25¢, and when a person might devote a lot of hours to worrying that his personal compass wasn’t pointing in a good direction.

John Lennon wasn’t having the easiest time of it either back then. The U.S. government was doing its best to try and deport him. And he and Yoko were having big marital problems. Somewhere I’d heard or read that they were separated and that John was living in SoHo. I never knew any details of his domestic situation while I lived on Broome Street, but I kept half-expecting to see him around.

See a Beatle on the street? Man, once I’d have fainted if that ever came to pass. I mean, I’d been an incredibly major Beatles fan. I lived and breathed Beatles for years. But strangely, a year or two after their 1970 dissolution, their aura began to dissipate. I still kept up with each Beatle’s doings, but the magic spell they’d had me under was no more.

Yep, John had plenty to worry about in 1973. But his woes didn’t stop him from doing what he did best: Writing songs and making music. Undertaking a bit of research last week, I discovered that he entered a Manhattan studio in July 1973 to record his Mind Games album. Most likely he was writing some songs for that record when I saw him on Broome Street. And the kicker is this: One Day (At A Time) comes from Mind Games. There’s a real chance that the lovely song that set this story in motion might have been partially playing in his head when our near-encounter took place.

Some stories need a moral and/or reason for being, and this is one of them. I therefore pose this question: If I knew then what I know now, would I have acted differently? Answer: Damn straight, boys and girls. I ain’t exactly deep on the path to enlightenment in these latter stages of my life, but I sure have a few bits more sense than did my more youthful self.

For example, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told. If I’d had my head on straighter in 1973 I’d have smiled at John Lennon and said “Hey, man. Thanks for all the great music you’ve made,” or “Hello, John. Fancy meeting you here.”

Lennon likely would have saluted Richie and me and thrown a “It’s a pleasure, gents” type of remark at us while continuing on his way. And if something along those lines had taken place, I’d now have a hell of a better tale to tell than the one I own. Or, come to think of it, maybe not . . . as with all aspects of life, it depends on how you look at things.

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A Seeker Of Beauty Am I: Art On Wheels, Part Two

I’d have to examine this blog’s archives, an activity worth doing on only the rainiest of days, to discover whether or not I’ve ever done a part two for a story before. Off the top of my head I’d say no, but the top of my head frequently is not reliable. Nor are the middle or bottom sections of my head, come to think of it. Not much I can do about any of that though. I was born that way.

The first good-looking truck I saw last week

In any event, soon after I completed my article about artistically-adorned motor vehicles (click here to read it), I was pretty certain that I would revisit the topic. I mean, I’d had fun driving around, keeping my eyes open for good-looking and creative designs painted on the sides of trucks and vans. And taking photographs of them. Three months later the itch to do so again became strong. Itches need to be scratched, as everybody knows. And so, last week, seeking beauty, I took to the roads and to the shopping centers in my suburban Philadelphia area. And beauty I did find.

Now, eye-catching trucks and vans and buses are not uncommon, comprising maybe 15% of the commercial and public vehicle population, I’d estimate. Driving along, you see plenty of them on the road. But, unless you have a death wish, you’d do well not to attempt to photograph them from a moving vehicle. I was tempted to on many occasions, but I kind of enjoy breathing. So I didn’t.

Which is why I hunted my prey in shopping centers and strip malls, where I was able to drive slowly, scouting out the parking areas and store delivery sections. I set off early on Wednesday morn and kept at it for three hours, a lot of time to devote to an admittedly loony quest. I drove all over the local map, visiting shopping places that I’d been to often over the years, and some I’d never ventured to, despite their being not much beyond spitting distance of my home. And, much to my delight, I snapped a photo while on the road of a snazzy waste disposal truck, its sides a vision in yellow and cool shapes, while beside it as we both waited for the traffic light to turn green.

It was a hit-or-miss operation, a question of being in the right place at the right time. As is much of life. And I was in the wrong place more often than not. I couldn’t believe how I kept coming up empty while trolling the huge receiving docks sections of the types of stores that, in some sense, have come to rule sizeable chunks of the world: Target, Lowe’s, Walmart, Staples. What the f*ck? Not only were there no gorgeous trucks there, for the most part there were no trucks at all!

But hey, just when I was giving up hope during various intervals of my expedition, something fine came my way. Such as the image of a sun-drenched wheat field decorating a Schmidt Baking Company truck. I encountered the vehicle in the supermarket where my wife Sandy and I do most of our grocery shopping.

Even better was what I saw in the desolate rear of a Wegmans supermarket, seven miles from my house. Fresh off the strikeouts at Lowe’s, Walmart, etc., I was expecting to uncover nothing there. But lo and behold, what was that in the distance? I drove closer and grinned. Why, it was a masterpiece, my favorite canvas of all I was to see that day. Luscious, exploding with color, the Wegmans veggie painting made me shout “yo, stop the presses! I’m going to become a vegetarian, and maybe even a vegan!” Luckily there was nobody around to hear my outburst. A nanosecond later I reconsidered what I’d said and tossed the idea in my ancient Honda Civic’s ashtray. But I will say this: The Wegmans truck artist sure as hell knows how to make a humble trailer look exquisite. I drove away with all kinds of warm and wholesome feelings in my heart.

A few days after completing my photographic mission a number of things occurred to me. For one, it seems as though you don’t see a whole lot of dazzling trucks or vans with black as their base color. Strange, considering that a hefty percentage of the cars and SUVs on the road are painted black, and that black is a staple in hip fashion. I came across but two fine black-based commercial vehicles: The Shred truck pictured a few paragraphs above, and Air Purity Experts’ van. Both shone like gems.

The truck behind Wawa store

The Air Purity van was parked behind a Wawa convenience store, around one of the building’s corners from a Coca-Cola truck. That truck was the second Coca-Cola deliverer I went eyeball-to-eyeball with that day. The designs on the sides of the Coke vehicles were different yet sublimely similar. And both are timeless. Coca-Cola trucks absolutely flaunt their red, and have for ages. The oceans of red grab the eye, entice, seduce. You want a Coke right now? I wouldn’t mind one at all. That’s an example of the kind of power that good art sometimes has over me.

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Things I’m Thankful For, Only One Of Which (A Movie) Is Real

After the Thanksgiving affair that my wife Sandy and I hosted last week, I really am feeling thankful. Thankful that the big day is over and that (hopefully) I won’t see the guests again for a long time. Never again would be ideal.

What with most of our family scattered around the world, far from our suburban Philadelphia home, and what with our friends chowing down elsewhere, Sandy and I, as usual, were reduced to inviting only the three cousins who live near us — Tom, Dick and Larry — to sit around our dining room table on Turkey Day.

Tom, Dick and Larry are from my side of the family. I never can keep straight precisely how they are related to me. Third cousins twice removed. Or second cousins thrice removed. Something like that. Whatever the blood connections may be, several things are definite: These guys are suspicious characters, unmarried and without girlfriends, and never receive Thanksgiving invites from anyone else. I won’t delve deeply into describing how thoroughly they distressed me last week. Let’s just say that after Tom glared at me 20 minutes into the meal and hissed “pass the gravy . . . or else,” I came this close to soiling my Mickey Mouse-emblazoned boxer shorts. Holy crap, I’m very thankful that didn’t happen! One painful hour later the meal was over and five minutes after that the boys were on their way home. Unsafe travels in the future, fellas.

Now, I pride myself on being not too concerned about lucid juxtapositions. One of these days maybe I’ll set aside my wobbly ways, but that day hasn’t arrived just yet. Which is why I, without embarrassment, now turn away from a Thanksgiving fantasia and toward something entirely unrelated. Its name is The Florida Project. It’s a movie, one that I thought only relative handfuls of people were visiting the theaters to see. But I was wrong about that. A quick look at Box Office Mojo reveals that TFP is in a substantial number of cinemas in the States. It deserves to be. The Florida Project is superb, a piercing examination of human plight. I caught it a couple of weeks ago, am thankful that I did, and can’t get it out of my head.

The Florida Project, though scripted, has the feel of cinema verite. Episodic, it follows the lives, day after day during one summer, of several young kids and their parents who call the Magic Castle motel home. The motel is in Orlando, Florida, close to Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park, but for many of Magic Castle’s residents it might as well be a million miles from that pricey wonderland. That’s because the Magic Castle, where a room may be had for under $40 a day, is loaded with those near the bottom of the economic ladder — folks with low-paying jobs, hustlers and pensioners who are barely getting by, and transients on their way to who knows where.

Moonee, a smart, playful and happy six-year-old girl, has been living in the Magic Castle for quite a while with her single mom, Halley, an angry and majestically-tattooed 20-something who, clearly and unfortunately, never has been part of the mainstream and won’t be joining it soon. Money comes to Halley in various ways, mostly by scheming, and its flow is erratic and unplentiful. Life’s been a bitch for her, as her white-hot temper shows, but the temper never is directed towards her daughter. Moonee is the apple of Halley’s eye, the wondrous creature who can do no wrong, the one person on Earth she loves unconditionally.

The Florida Project is filmed in colors that blaze with brilliance. I think the director, Sean Baker, chose this somewhat jarring motif to demonstrate the way in which Moonee views her surroundings. To her they are an adventureland meant to be savored and explored. And explore it she does with her pals Scooty and Jancey — the fields close to the motel, the ice cream stand where they twist the arms of customers to buy them cones, abandoned buildings that sit under the Sun peacefully and half-forgotten.

At first, none of this seems like much. But the cumulative effect of the seemingly ordinary soon becomes powerful, as Baker paints the children and their parents with unadulterated strokes. The characters are real, vividly real, and totally believable. I’m still hearing Moonee’s glee-infused voice, which provides one of the soundtracks to the film. It’s been a year since I saw a movie, Moonlight being the last, that rang as true as this one.

Well, as they pile up it becomes apparent halfway through the movie that the details within The Florida Project are not a collection of random observations and occurrences. The plot is headed in a definite direction. And it would be most unfair of me to give away the final destination. I will say, though, that anyone whose heart is not composed of stone better be prepared to have it wrenched.

Performance-wise, what can you say about Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, who portray Moonee and Halley, respectively? Brilliant jobs, young ladies. Utterly brilliant. And Willem Dafoe? He’s the sole actor I was familiar with in the film. His handling of Bobby, the motel manager whose job requires him to put out metaphorical fires right and left, and who keeps a watchful eye out for dangers that might be heading for the children, is understatedly strong.

Sean Baker, who also co-wrote The Florida Project, is yet another I never knew about previously. Maybe I should have been aware of the sitcoms he helped create a few years ago, Greg The Bunny and Warren The Ape. But I wasn’t and am not.

In any event, somebody waved a magic wand over Baker’s head some time ago when he began thinking about the ideas he wanted to get across in The Florida Project and how they might take shape. The magic wand worked.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

Looking At Love: A Musical Story

It was about 8:30 on a recent Saturday morn. Breakfast having slid down my throat 15 minutes earlier, I was in position on the living room sofa where I was thumbing through the newspaper, absentmindedly twirling the handful of hairs on my head into poor facsimiles of ionic columns, and listening to the radio. In other words, per usual, I wasn’t doing much. But that’s the way I often like it.

The radio station generating tunes in my house was WXPN, the stellar music provider from Philadelphia that has sparked me to compose any number of stories since my blog’s inception in April 2015. I’ve given XPN a ton of free publicity on these pages, but that’s a-ok. They deserve it.

WXPN likes to keep things mellow on much of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Appropriately, they named the show that airs during those hours Sleepy Hollow. You ain’t going to hear anything by Albert Ayler or Public Enemy or The Sex Pistols on the Hollow. James Taylor and Billie Holiday and Conor Oberst you will. Nice and easy does it, as Frank Sinatra once sang.

And that’s fine with me. And with my wife Sandy. We’re of the sort who like to ease slowly into the day. Sleepy Hollow is the proper conduit for such.

There I was, then, having constructed two unstable ionic columns and working on a third, when a lovely song caught my attention. A few numbers later another beauty made my eardrums sigh. And, it being my lucky day, a third tune, sweet as it could be, soon entered my living room. I’d never heard the songs before. Right away I suspected that I was going to write about them.

The songs in question are Cold As Canada, Time Will Tell and Love Had To Follow. Paul Kelly, Gregory Alan Isakov and Ron Renninger, respectively, are their composers and singers. I’ve given each song repeated listenings on YouTube since that fateful Saturday morning and have not lowered my estimations of their qualities. They are real good works of art.

I think these songs grabbed hold of me because of their sonic similarities. Each is spare in instrumentation, and each singer handles his words gently. Plenty often that formula results in sappy drivel, but not in the case of the Kelly, Isakov and Renninger opuses. And what I realized, after first hearing them, is that they concern themselves with the most powerful and basic of human emotions, and the one that I’d guesstimate about 75% of the non-instrumental songs ever written either touch upon or are fully consumed with.

Sisters and brothers, we’re talking about love.

Yeah, love. I’m not exactly issuing any news bulletins when I say that love can be as present as air, as elusive as a yeti or as slippery as a shapeshifter. It might be hot, it might be tepid, it might barely register a reading on the Celsius or Fahrenheit scales. What can you say? . . . Love’s usually complicated.

We get three differing discussions of love in my Sleepy Hollow songs. Cold As Canada, tender and sorrowful, an ideal vessel for Paul Kelly’s nasal, Dylanesque voice, is about a gal whose love for her guy has faded a whole lot. Unhappily cold, she’s leaving him, knowing that, as Kelly writes, there’s “no good way to say goodbye.” There isn’t.

Cold As Canada, which comes from Kelly’s 2012 album Spring And Fall, is a straightforward and humble work, its melody clean and pure. Kelly, a gent of 62 with a four-decades-long career in place, is a major star in his native Australia and can rock vigorously. But rock he doesn’t on this song or on quite a few others in his large oeuvre.

Now, I’m a sucker for a waltz, especially one with an unusually beguiling melody. Which means that Time Will Tell doesn’t want to give up occupancy in my brain. If there’s a lovelier, more wistful tune out there, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. And you know what? A few days ago I almost rolled off my bed when I heard Time Will Tell in a Subaru television ad. Huh? How did Subaru come across this song? Whatever, I’m glad that what I imagine are decent bucks have landed in Isakov’s pockets. It’s a struggle for most musicians to pay the rent.

What we have in Time Will Tell is a lyric open to interpretation. The words are seductive and vivid, but somewhat cloudy at the same time. Blowing the clouds away, however, I’ve decided that the story concerns a couple, two good folks who have been together for a long time and, as good folks sometimes do, are wondering if their common path is separating. It might be, but not too seriously. Their love is destined to get back on track. “Time will tell, she’ll see us through.”

Time Will Tell, from 2013’s The Weatherman album, is not dissimilar to much of Isakov’s output. He’s a folkie at heart, a mystical one who has attracted a lot of fans and has sold a lot of tickets. At 38, he’s two decades into his career and seems to have found a good, solid path to mosey down.

What, then, of Love Had To Follow? This is an easy one to decipher, even for the likes of me who couldn’t get the gist of Horton Hears A Who and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The song is all about love at first sight, a love that lasts forever. Really, it’s that simple. I promise.

Unlike Kelly and Isakov, I’d never heard of Renninger before the Hollow brought him my way. He’s one of those guys who has been around forever (his music career began in the mid-1960s) but has never come remotely close to becoming even a wisp of a household name. But he’s still at it. Love Had To Follow is found on The Man Who Became A Song, his album of one year ago. If I owned a hat, I’d tip it to Renninger’s perseverance and love of music.

Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands, probably several million good songs have been written about love. I imagine that hundreds more were composed while I penned this article. Love . . . it makes the world, and the music biz, go round.

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I Didn’t Expect To See THAT!

One of the things I like about writing stories for this here website is that the process sometimes leads me to examine the way I live my life, to notice my tendencies and to become more aware of my likes and dislikes. In other words, I’ve come to get a better, more organized sense of who I am since I began pecking away at my computer’s keyboard two and a half years ago, launching this blog into heavenly cyberspace.

And who am I, you ask? Holy crap, you think I’m nuts enough to lay myself bare in this article? Well, maybe I am that nuts, but I’m going to restrain myself. Instead, I plan to leave all of the juicy details for the blockbuster memoir that I’ve just now decided to begin work on soon. Do, Re, Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi will be its title. In it you will learn all there is to know about mi . . . I mean, me.

Gentle readers, I apologize for the detour. Where was I heading? Ah yes . . .

Surprises. Pulling my thoughts together while writing stories has made me fully realize that I like surprises. The good ones, that is. Not the bad, an example of which would be having Donnie Trump knock on my door on Halloween night and yell BOO! at me at the top of his lungs. That miserable motherf**ker wouldn’t even need to wear a devilish costume. In civilian garb he’s more than frightening enough.

Good surprises came my way quite a few times during the Cape Cod vacation that my wife Sandy and I indulged in last month. They weren’t of the knock-your-socks-off variety, but I found them hip in a modest sort of way. And here’s the thing: Sandy and I have explored Cape Cod’s territory so relentlessly over the 20 years that we’ve been vacationing there, I no longer expect to come upon something that I deem to be cool and that I also haven’t seen or experienced in ages, if ever. But as they say, you never know. Let’s take a look at the two incidents that startled my eyes the most.

Sandy and I were in Provincetown in mid-afternoon on the twelfth day of October, ambling along Commercial Street, one of the town’s two main drags. The air was warm and the Sun, though fairly low in the sky, was ridiculously bright. I must have been lost in a daydream, for it was only at the last minute that I became aware of a very large orange and black object, a school bus, taking up all kinds of space in fairly narrow Commercial Street and also in Law Street, the really narrow side street from which the vehicle’s driver was attempting to make a right turn.

The driver was in a tough situation. If he had continued to bear right he’d have delivered a mighty blow to the building occupied by kmoe, a high-class wares establishment. How would the driver, who had only inches of wriggle room, get out of his predicament? Would he get out of it? I was fascinated by the spectacle. It struck me as not only comical but bordering on the surreal, giddily out of place in quaint, artsy, cute-as-a-button Provincetown.

Well, if it had been me behind the wheel, I shudder to think what might have ensued. No doubt Provincetown soon would have been saying a eulogy for the picket fence across Commercial Street from kmoe and/or for the shrubbery a breath away from the bus’s rear. And kmoe itself would have had to close for extensive renovations.

In the end, thankfully, all was happily resolved. With assistance from a good Samaritan who took up position in the middle of Commercial Street and provided verbal and hand-gesture guidance, the bus eventually was freed. Hallelujah!

Why in the world, though, had the bus been on Law Street? Provincetown has more skinny streets than Imelda Marcos has pairs of shoes, and they ain’t welcoming to anything bigger than a pickup truck. The bus driver must have been zoning out or simply in the mood to add some dollops of excitement to an otherwise placid day. I’ll never know.

Sixteen days later I decided to go for a fairly long hike along some Atlantic Ocean sands. The rented house that Sandy and I called home, in the town of Orleans, is oh so close to the ocean, so I stuck my feet into a pair of sneakers and headed out the door.

By way of an ocean inlet I reached Nauset Beach in a handful of minutes. It was a lovely day, on the warm side, and the ocean waters, in the midst of low tide, were pretty calm. I strode southward with little in mind except to enjoy the views and to nod and smile like a good neighbor at whomever I crossed paths with. And I had my eyes open for seals, as they commonly cruise in the ocean on their way to the sand islets, just offshore Cape Cod’s southeastern coast, that serve as safe havens for them. I didn’t notice any of those creatures though. I did, however, dig the sight of a small group of seagulls that were in shallow water, a pebble’s throw beyond the mud flats left behind by the low tide. They seemed very cool, calm and collected.

After 30 or 40 minutes of all of this I made the command decision to reverse direction and find my way home.

It was during this return journey that I noticed a couple of folks sloshing around in the mud flats. Throwing aside all concerns about dirtying my bright white sneakers — hey, I’m nothing if not a manly man! — I began to slosh around too, enjoying the heck out of the day. I moseyed northward in the flats, and with each step my admiration for their soppy, primitive beauty grew. They needed to be documented, so I pulled out my iPhone and got its camera ready. I positioned myself just so, the Sun to my back, and was about to press the button. But what was that dark image that had entered the scene? I blinked twice before realizing that it was my shadow, a shadow of someone readying to snap a photograph.

Was it possible that I’d never noticed my own shadow on a beach before? If I had, I didn’t recall the prior occasion(s), which isn’t too unbelievable considering the sieve-like consistency of my cranium’s contents. In any case, I recognized the fact that the design, a most unexpected addition, enhanced the loveliness of the mud flats. I pressed the iPhone camera’s button. And it is with the resultant photograph that I now take my leave of you.

Till next time, amigos.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks,)

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A Monumental Provincetown Story

Let no one declare that I don’t follow up on my threats, for here I am at my writing desk penning another story about Cape Cod, just as I intimated I might do in my previous essay (click here). For those of you who have read more than enough about the Cape on these pages over the last two years, now’s a good time to turn your attention to a different sort of activity, such as sending one of Hallmark’s What The Hell Is Wrong With You? cards to Donnie Trump. But please promise to return to check out what I have to say next time around . . . unless it too turns out to be a Cape opus. In which case I give you my permission to send one of those cards to me.

Provincetown’s village section (as opposed to Provincetown’s enormous and mostly uninhabited areas of beaches, woods, marshes, sand dunes and sand valleys that separate the village from the Atlantic Ocean) — that’s what I had in mind to write about after strolling along many of its streets for several hours a couple of weeks ago. I was in P-Town, as those in the know call it, during my wife Sandy’s and my annual Cape Cod vacation. Our home base was Orleans, about 25 miles away.

I meandered very contentedly, snapping a bushel or two of photos and figuring I probably would have little problem turning the excursion into a blog-worthy piece. But as one and then two and then three days following the jaunt went by, no satisfactory story slant entered my mind.

Remarkably, panic-prone me didn’t panic. Instead I took a few deep breaths, dropped to my knees and prayed to the blogging gods for assistance. “Get up, you schmuck, before you hurt yourself! Did you forget that you’re about as flexible as a baseball bat?” they immediately shouted at me. I rose slowly, creaking like an ancient wooden chair. “Okay, that’s better. Listen, you definitely should write about your Provincetown amble. But put the Pilgrim Monument near the center of the story, because you’ve always loved the Monument more than anything else in Provincetown. That’s the best advice we can give you.”

Hey, they were right. The Pilgrim Monument, located just two blocks from Provincetown village’s central area, is a stunner. And when I’m Cape-side it’s in my thoughts or pleasing my eyes a fair amount of time. That’s because I admire its enormous size and equally enormous aura. I mean, it’s got presence up the wazoo and seems almost supernatural to me, so unlikely is it in appearance compared to all that surrounds it. The Pilgrim Monument is the stolid, solid and protective alien creature that Provincetown and the rest of Cape Cod didn’t know they needed until it was erected in the early 1900s.

Provincetown village is charm personified. And it was made for strolling. Lovely, sea-sidey houses abound. As do more-polished abodes with beautiful gardens, and art galleries and food venues ranging from grab-a-bite to haute-cuisine. Not to mention funky stores of one kind or another that, with the galleries and eateries, run along Commercial Street, P-Town’s main shopping drag, and to a lesser extent along the village’s other lengthy artery, Bradford Street. And you’d have to possess a heart made of granite not to be beguiled by Provincetown Harbor, whose waters are fed by gargantuan Cape Cod Bay. The harbor is but a stone’s throw from Commercial Street.

The small and smaller streets in Provincetown, which occupies the far tip of Cape Cod, never cease to amaze me. Some are half-hidden, some little more than cubby holes — good luck ever finding those again if you fail to jot down exactly where they’re located. All of that suits me just fine, as I’m a fan of the whimsical. I’m also a fan of  peace and quiet, and things were real tranquil during the day in question. Artsy, open-minded and gay-friendly Provincetown, population around 3,000, is overrun with visitors and vacationers during the summer, but not so in autumn, which is when Sandy and I plant our temporary roots on the Cape.

Fifty minutes into my exploratory venture, I caught a glimpse of that which the blogging gods suggested I focus on. Despite its being 252 feet from toe to head (it’s by far the tallest structure on vertically-challenged Cape Cod), and perched on a hill to boot, you can’t see the Monument from everywhere in town. Trees and buildings, though nowhere near as tall as the Monument, commonly obscure the view. But as I got closer to the old soul, I sought out perspectives that partly or fully brought it into my field of vision. I especially liked the way the Monument, three or four blocks away at that point, stretched its torso above a Gulf gas station’s sign on Bradford Street.

Funny thing about the Pilgrim Monument. It was created to honor the Pilgrims who voyaged in 1620 from England aboard the good ship Mayflower and helped colonize these here United States. They made their first landfall in what would later be known as Provincetown, before moving on soon after to a permanent home, across Cape Cod Bay, in Plymouth.

You’d think, then, that the Monument’s basic design or at least its adornments would acknowledge the Pilgrims or the Mayflower or the European settlement of the States. A plaque near the Monument takes care of those matters, but not the Monument itself. The decision was made to pattern the Monument after a bell tower that was built in the 1300s in the hilly, landlocked Italian town of Siena. Huh? Wha? An Italian tower in a bohemian New England fishing village? But as it turns out, for me anyway, the Monument’s fish-out-of-water aspect, not to overlook its stateliness, makes it the brightest star in town.

There are other reasons why I enjoy the Monument as much as I do. I find it more than cool that the tower is visible from miles away along certain sections of Cape Cod Bay. Though it’s only twig-sized from those vantage points, I feel good knowing that it’s there. And more than once I was gassed to see the big guy poking up its head while I was scampering in the aforementioned Provincetown sands just outside the village.

But more than anything, I get kind of weak in the knees when I’m near the Monument at night. When the Sun goes down, lights illuminate the giant. I don’t know, I guess I’d have to say that the nighttime Monument is one of the finest sights I know of, not only beautiful but curiously otherworldly. As my afternoon in Provincetown segued into night, I stared more than once at the Monument. And took a couple of pictures. One of them is the money shot.

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