Keeping It Short (A Story About Books)

Man, I don’t how they do it. They being the book bloggers I’ve come across who not only read an incredible number of books — three and up per week — but somehow also find the time, and have the brain power, to write sharp and detailed reviews about them. My little ol’ head spins madly just thinking about those folks’ accomplishments. Even in the days of yore when I read books aplenty I’d never have been able to follow them up quickly with well-plotted, good quality commentaries. Uh-uh. That kind of mental grandeur and endurance I do not possess, and never did. To put it a related way, my thoughts do not exactly flow in structured torrents along my neural pathways to my typing fingers. Hell, I’m lucky if a writing session produces 150 words that fit together in a useable manner. All I can say is that I stand in awe of those book bloggers. To repeat, I don’t know how they do it. (Lynne LeGrow, whose blog is called Fictionophile, is an example of what I’m talking about. Click here to find her blog.)

I bring up all of this partly because this is the first opus I’ve written that touches upon my book-reading activities. As I alluded to moments ago, I used to consume more than my share of books, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Leafing through a list that I’ve been keeping since 1970, I see that I knocked off 45 volumes in 1971, for instance, and 59 in 1983. The latter is my highest-ever yearly total.

Alas, my bookish endeavors came to a grinding halt in February 2015 when I reached the final page of Birds Of America, a collection of cool short stories by Lorrie Moore. That’s when the dark months set in, months marked by so much fretting about my place in the universe and in the kitchen, I became a cowering wreck. Books could wait. Oh well, it might have been worse. Like, if Trump had been elected president. What? You mean he is president? Holy crap! Let me outta here!

But the dark times didn’t last forever. Quite amazingly, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up a book that had been hanging around the house for a pretty long while. I ran through it in five or six days. And one day after finishing it I headed to a local library and took out a work that I almost immediately set upon. Two days later I reached its end. Bravo, Neil, bravo! Back in the book-reading saddle I am, and probably will remain there for a decent spell.

Book number one, The Outermost House, by Henry Beston, was right up my alley. In fact, it is surprising that I hadn’t turned its pages ages ago, as it is set on Cape Cod, a locale I’ve gotten to know and crazily love over the last 20 years. The Outermost House describes the months (autumn 1926 till autumn 1927) that Beston spent living in semi-solitude, housing himself in a two room cabin in the dunes of Cape Cod’s raw and wild Atlantic Ocean coastline. Many times I’ve trod on the very sands and wetlands that grabbed hold of Beston’s heart and spirit.

Beston’s book has become one of the so-called classics, remaining in print since hitting the marketplace in 1928, and apparently still selling pretty nicely. I loved it. Beston writes gracefully and has an eye for subject matter that you don’t frequently cross paths with, such as his lengthy descriptions of the differing types of sounds made by the ocean waves and surf. Next time I’m on The Cape I’m going to have his book in hand as I investigate some of the observations that his keen senses and abstract mind came up with. I won’t be able to check out his cabin, though. A violent storm in 1978 destroyed it.

Now that I think about it, I believe I had the notion in the back of my head for a while to reacquaint myself with books, and that I knew I’d have book-reading success only by taking baby steps. By which I mean I wasn’t about to tackle monsters like Dickens’ David Copperfield or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, both of which ain’t that far from the 1,000 page mark. No, whatever I was to read would have to be short, and The Outermost House fit the bill just fine. Its 218 pages are endowed with a large typeface and spacious margins. Perfect. So, I seized the moment and gave the dark months a hardy wave goodbye.

As with The Outermost House, short also needed to apply to the next book I opened if I were to have any hope of establishing a bit of book-reading momentum. Which is why I bow to the memory of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, whose remarkably slim The Means Of Escape, an okay-but-could-be-better short story collection, became the second title I conquered this month. I tell you, a more ideal specimen for length-phobic and trepidatious book readers would be hard to find. You want short? Hey, The Means Of Escape numbers only 117 pages, and a bunch of them are blanks that separate one story from another. The pages that actually contain printed words total a very genial and genteel 96. My kind of book, for sure!

On the living room sofa I began to gloat about my accomplishments to my wife Sandy as the final pages of The Means Of Escape drew within sight. “Can you believe it?” I said. “I’m about to finish my second book in a nine or ten day period.”

Sandy gave me one of those looks. And then she gave Penelope Fitzgerald’s micro-tome one of those looks. “That’s not a book,” she said. “That doesn’t count as a book.”

Oh yeah? I beg to differ. Was it sitting on a library shelf? You bet it was. Does it have a front and a back cover? Damn straight.

It counts!

 

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California Stars: A Song To Make Better A Cold And Icy Day

Well, here I am at my writing post on the afternoon of the Ides of March. That’s a date that proved to be a real bad one for  Julius Caesar but hopefully will be benign for yours truly. It’s cold outside, as in 23°F, and my suburban community is weighed down with billions of tons of icy snow that fell from the heavens yesterday. This white stuff is so dense it won’t be going away anytime soon. There’s nothing like a late winter storm to disrupt gleeful thoughts of approaching springtime. Yippee-yi-o-ki-yay, baby.

Earlier today I published one of the oddball stories that, if I had any degree of fame, I would be famous for. Or maybe infamous. Anyway, it partly was about the dilemmas that confront me and surely a fair number of other scribes when it comes to figuring out what in the world to write about. Happily, I am not conflicted about the direction that the present essay shall take. After I kicked around several bushels-worth of slippery notions, things fairly quickly coalesced. Meaning, I have decided to spend some words on a song that is good for cold, ice-laden days such as today. This tune is good for any day, really. It is among my fave recordings of all time, and I think it will elevate my mood as I press forward with this narrative. The song of which I speak is California Stars, a joint production of Billy Bragg, the band Wilco and the late singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie. A better companion I could not hope for. Here it is:

California Stars came out in 1998 on the Bragg/Wilco album titled Mermaid Avenue. Mermaid Avenue is the result of a project that Nora Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s daughter and Arlo’s sister) put into motion. Her father, who bid adieu to Planet Earth in 1967, had left behind scads of completed lyrics that he hadn’t gotten around to recording. Their accompanying music might have existed in Woody’s head, but those melodies and harmonies never will be known, as Woody was unable to notate music. Nora asked Billy Bragg, a British singer-songwriter, to sift through the lyrics, pick those that wowed him and put them to music. Bragg brought the Wilco fellows aboard to help with the composing, playing and recording processes.

Now, the entirety of Mermaid Avenue is great. I was left kind of breathless when I first spun the CD soon after its release. But one song in particular of its 15 went straight to my heart. California Stars, of course. And I tell the truth when I say that every time I’ve heard California Stars since then, and that’s probably close to 100 times, its effect has been the same.

To me it is a perfect creation. Woody’s lyrics are sweet and simple. In two verses they tell the tale of a discontented someone, likely Woody, who pines for a more idyllic life with his female mate. The California stars of which he writes are the beautiful things that, along with her touch, might help soften his woes. Here’s the second verse:

I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars.
Jump up from my star bed and make another day
Underneath my California stars.
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine.
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars.

Gorgeous, Woody, gorgeous. But to be honest, I’m certain that Mr. G would have been unable to put his words to music as lovely and endearing as that composed by two of the Wilco boys, Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett (he passed away in 2009). Clearly captivated by Guthrie’s images, they found the essential combination of notes to encase the lyrics in. Seductively childlike, their work allows Woody’s poem to rise into the clouds and beyond.

And that’s where the song takes me whenever I pay it a visit. A short while ago, in the name of research for this piece, I listened five times to California Stars. Talk about multiple pleasures. And, as if the lyrics and music aren’t fine enough, I began to think that the song’s arrangement and instrumentation and Jeff Tweedy’s lead vocals are the keys to its star power. That’s a discussion that undoubtedly would go on for days, maybe eternally, among the song’s devotees.

I mean, Jeff Tweedy was born to sing this song. He’s a salt of the Earth kind of guy who quietly burrows inside lyrics, finding their core — loneliness or optimism or whatever the case may be. He does this straightforwardly, unaffectedly, an approach that in his hands is right on target. In California Stars, loneliness and optimism are entwined in Guthrie’s vision. Tweedy does the words proud.

Looking down at my star bed this afternoon I flowed with Tweedy’s calm voice. And I rode the gentle waves formed by a yearning and shimmering lap steel guitar, a grinning piano and a bobbing electric bass guitar. And when a fiddle started fiddling joyfully for a few seconds after the second stating of the second verse, I drifted even higher. Miraculously, those instruments touch the skies more than they might have. The elemental drumming pattern that Ken Coomer sagely locked himself into saw to that — a steady and unbroken string of thud-thuds never sounded so good. Sometimes things come together in mysteriously ideal ways. That is the story with California Stars.

Whenever California Stars draws to its close, as it inevitably must, it takes me a few moments to gather myself. I open my eyes (they’d been shut, you dig, the better to float) and begin my return to what passes for reality. And as this story too now nears its conclusion I’ll add another thought about endings: When I’m on my way out, breathing my last, I’d like to be serenaded with California Stars. The Mermaid Avenue version, needless to say, as there have been others in its wake. That’s the way to go.

 

(Notes: Wilco has seen musicians come and go over the years. Of its six current members, only two remain from the Mermaid Avenue days — Jeff Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt. As for Billy Bragg, his career is going strong. Ditto for Wilco’s.)

Guilty As Charged!

It’s rough out here in the blogging world. I tell you, it’s rough. After what happened to me this past Friday I think I might have had enough. Possibly this will be the last story I compose for quite a while. I can’t say for sure. But this I do know: My nerves are badly shaken. Yours would be too if you had been rigorously reprimanded and questioned, as I was, by the president of BAFFF (Blogging Ain’t For Fools, Fool).

Friday began quietly and propitiously before turning nasty. After breakfast I retired to the living room where, deep in dreamland on the sofa, I made the most of the next several hours. I was ridding The States of zombies and vampires when suddenly I was awakened at 11:30 AM by a series of powerful, rapid knocks on the front door. “Open up, Neil, at once! This is Mal Practiss, president of BAFFF. I’m here to give you a good talking to.”

I opened the door and let Mal in. As a card-carrying member of BAFFF I had no choice but to do so. Silently, I took his coat and led him to the dining room table. There, we took seats.

“Neil,” Mal said, looking straight into my eyes, “I’m certain you realize that, as a blogger, you are expected to meet stringent standards. One of BAFFF’s purposes is to monitor all of America’s bloggers, making sure they write when they should be writing and that they are telling the stories that cyberspace needs to be filled with.”

“Neil, it has come to my attention that twice — I say twice — in the past two weeks you failed to pen articles that would have fit your blog’s pages like the finest of gloves. Like most of your output, they would have described somewhat accurately your barely second-rate mini-adventures in life. First, you and your wife Sandy went to Philadelphia to see the movie 20th Century Women and followed it up with dinner at Panorama, an acclaimed restaurant located in a part of town that dates back to when Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson strode manfully through the streets. Wasn’t there a story in all of that?”

“And nine days later you and Sandy went to a house concert in Media, Pennsylvania to hear Ben Vaughn and his group. Ben Vaughn is a talented songwriter and musician who has been doing his offbeat thing for decades, and house concerts are intimate gatherings that the majority of your handful of readers probably don’t know a thing about. Neil, as with the first instance, it is unacceptable that you failed to commit a blog piece to that night out. Sir, and I use that term loosely, you better have good reasons for your neglect. If not, your blogging privileges are in jeopardy.”

“Humma, humma, humma,” I stammered admirably. A few moments later I finally was able to ask the obvious questions. “Mal,” I said, “how in the world do you know about all of this? Are you related to Kreskin?”

“Kreskin? Are you kidding? The evidence was there for me to see. I know you saw 20th Century Women because the photos you took at the theater are up on the iCloud, which needless to say I have full access to. And my access extends to OpenTable’s database, on which your Panorama reservation resides. As for The Ben Vaughn Quintet’s concert, luckily somebody videotaped the first number they performed that night and put it on FaceBook. The back of your goofy head, three feet away from the accordion player’s left elbow, is unmistakable in that video. Are my answers sufficient?”

I reluctantly nodded my goofy head yes.

“Good,” said Mal Practiss. “Now, explain yourself.”

I gathered my thoughts as best I could and took a deep breath. “Mal,” I then said, “I fully expected to write about the movie and dinner. But 20th Century Women disappointed me so much. I was sure I was going to like it, but uh-uh. It was slow and seemed almost like a hodgepodge of scenes sewn together. And I couldn’t have cared less about any of the five main characters. They were dull. Anyway, when the movie ended I didn’t see the point of writing about it.”

“Yeah, maybe I should have written a report about Panorama,” I went on. “It’s a real good restaurant. The food tastes and looks terrific. But it’s a given that any blog story about a restaurant should be stuffed with photos, and Panorama isn’t the kind of place where you whip out your phone and snap pictures of each dish. I’d have felt like an idiot doing that. What can I say?”

Mal nodded his head in sympathy, or so I thought. Then he said, “That’s unacceptable, Neil. A good story was there for you to mold, and you left it lying on the table. Let’s move on. Talk about Ben Vaughn.”

“Mal,” I said softly, “this is a different situation. I had no intention to write about that show. I’d have felt stupid sitting there jotting down notes on the music and taking photos. I mean, house concerts are special affairs — a small crowd pays to see a show in someone’s home, for crying out loud — and I didn’t want to disturb anyone sitting around me.”

“But, Mal, I’ll say this. The Ben Vaughn Quintet was really good. Vaughn’s songs are wry and understated. The band played maybe 25 tunes, including nearly every one from their new album, Pièce De Résistance, which is a winner. Ben’s a good singer and guitar picker. And how many rock bands include both a saxophonist and an accordion player? Hardly any, that’s for sure. The band was cool.”

There was little more I could add. Fortunately, a few seconds after my speech ended Sandy entered the room. Mal’s expression softened when he saw her. “Mal, Sandy. Sandy, Mal,” I brilliantly stated.

Mal sent a subdued but warm smile Sandy’s way. “Sandy,” he said, “as I imagine you know, your husband’s judgment leaves, shall we say, much to be desired. He doesn’t seem to understand the basics of blogging protocol. But I’m a reasonable man. I came here expecting to put a temporary or permanent stop to Neil’s blog. But I won’t. As long as he wises up in the future, that is. Neil, do you agree that you insulted the standards of the blogging community with your recent inactions?”

“Mal, I’m guilty as charged.”

“Yes, you are. This has been an unpleasant meeting for you and me. And it’s almost time for me to leave. Before I do, though, let me remind you that your BAFFF membership is due for renewal. It’s $500 for the upcoming 12 months, as you know. And worth every penny of it. Get your checkbook. I’ll wait.”

 

Click here for Panorama’s website.

Click here to watch The Ben Vaughn Quintet perform at the house concert.

Click here for Concerts At Sixth Street’s website.

Click here for Ben Vaughn’s website.

You can listen to The Ben Vaughn Quintet’s new album by hitting the Play button below:

 

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Philadelphia, Here We Come Again

Some days begin badly and then turn out fine and dandy. A week ago Friday, for instance, I spent several hours pouting and moping after realizing that there weren’t any fresh blueberries in the house to dump into my breakfast bowl of Wheaties. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say that Wheaties sans blueberries ain’t no Breakfast Of Champions. I might have continued bemoaning my fate until who knows when were it not for the deserved and perfectly aimed slap upside my head that my wife Sandy administered. “Snap out of it, you fool!” she urged me for the umpteenth time this young year, adding “let’s go to Philadelphia and have some fun.” Right as rain once again, I looked through the arts and entertainment listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s weekend section and assembled a plan. Before long we found ourselves on a train heading from the burbs into the big city. Arriving in Philadelphia’s central section around 3 PM, we embarked on our expedition of discovery.

Now, Philadelphia’s a cool place in a lot of ways. For starters, it’s swimming with good restaurants and swell arts establishments and nifty Colonial era streets and gorgeous public parks. You can walk for miles and miles taking in the sights. Or, as Sandy and I did on the Friday in question, you can confine yourself to a small chunk of territory and do just fine. Everything we did took place between two blocks on the east-west axis (11th to 13th Streets), and four blocks on the perpendicular plane (Arch to Sansom Streets). We spent five hours within that rectangle before hopping a train back home.

img_1464It was a Friday defined by art, music and food and drink. My kind of day, in other words. First stop was Fabric Workshop And Museum, a non-profit arts institution that has been on the scene since 1977. I’ve been aware of FWM for nearly all of its life, but didn’t get around to scratching it off my to-be-visited list until the other day. Mister Right-On-Top-Of-Things strikes again!

img_1423img_1435FWM is a busy organization, with various arts-making and educational programs going on behind the scenes (click here to find the official website). Its more public face is the galleries where changing exhibits of, natch, art are displayed throughout the year. The items in the first floor gallery didn’t grab me. But I got big kicks from the handmade textiles that set the huge, warehouse-like eighth floor space aflame with colors. There, mounted side by side in four long rows, were large and beautiful silkscreened fabrics produced over the last few years by teens and young adults in FWM’s Apprentice Training Program. Half of the works stuck strictly to blacks and whites, while the rest went crazy with other members of the palette. Black and white . . . multi-colored . . . I couldn’t decide which family I liked best. Hell, why bother deciding? Both approaches were A-OK.

img_1451img_1455Bright, jubilant  colors, though, were destined to take precedence over their more dignified siblings as the afternoon segued into evening. From Fabric Workshop And Museum, Sandy and I ducked into a neighboring building and rode the elevator up to Fleischer/Ollman Gallery where we spent 20 minutes getting drenched by rocking blues, reds, yellows, you name it. Man, I started feeling dizzy from the wild vibes at FOG, and I liked that. “Yo,” I almost said to Sandy, “it’s time to add some life to our frigging living room. I’m going to buy that one and that one.” By which I meant Marc Zajack’s loopily loveable oil titled Stoned Bust and Nadine Beauhamois’ Circus Escapee, a plaster/wire/papier mâché beast in eye-popping hues. But I didn’t take out my wallet. I think I should have. And maybe I yet will.

img_1472On we marched, our final destination to be Fergie’s Pub, a two story joint where you go when you’re in the mood for bohemian funkiness and friendliness. The air outside was incredibly warm for a February 24, about 72° F, which enhanced Sandy’s and my good spirits. It also resulted in an unusual sight — slews of jacketless diners chowing down at sidewalk tables strung all along a stretch of 13th Street, one of The Little Apple’s restaurant rows. Cool. I mean, warm.

 

 

img_1475img_1478Ah, yes, Fergie’s Pub, a spot that totally agrees with me. Sandy and I had been there four or five times before, but not in the past two years. It’s a good place. The food is straightforward, tasty and fresh. The beers flow like wine, and vice versa. And on some Fridays, starting at 6 PM, a tight and soothingly rocking country-and-folk-flavored band that goes by the unlikely name John Train holds sway (click here if you’d like to be directed to JT’s website). John Train played two sets, each about 45 minutes in length, and had the jam-packed second floor room eating out of the palms of its sweaty hands. The group delivered a bunch of original tunes and some by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and the like (click here to watch a John Train performance at Fergie’s from earlier this year). The repertoire was powered by drummer Mark Schreiber’s low key but insistent beats and flourishes, and sent soaring by the wistful sounds flowing from Mark Tucker’s steel guitar and guest member Jay Ansill’s fiddle.

John Train is led by lead vocalist Jon Houlon, who sounds like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Arlo Guthrie, and who can banter with and throw goofy barbs at audience members like nobody’s business. The guy is a natural riot. He told a joke that I feel obligated to pass on to my readers. Between songs near the end of the second set, as Sandy and I finished up our turkey burgers, suds and vino, Jon Houlon said this to the audience: “You know The Rolling Stones song Get Off Of My Cloud?  . . . ‘Hey! You! Get off of my cloud’ . . . Well, did you ever hear the Scottish version? . . . ‘Hey! McCloud! Get off of my ewe.'” In my book, that’s a very good one.

You know, I’ve been dancing and prancing in Philadelphia for over four decades, which is most of my adult life, and I’ve yet to get tired of the routine. The day may come when I will, but I’ll worry about it then.

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Girl-Watching (A Philadelphia Museum Story)

It can take me forever to get around to tackling projects and situations, big or small. Half the time I never — and I mean never — place them in the completed bin. Hell, probably that’s the way a hefty percentage of us humans roll. I take comfort in believing that I’m far, far from being alone in excelling at procrastination.

Which is my four-sentence preface to announcing that I finally am getting around to knocking a certain something off my to-do list that has been sitting there for nearly two years. I began this blog in April 2015 and almost from the start had it in mind to write a story about La Salle University Art Museum, a little-known institution in Philadelphia on the cute campus of La Salle University. Man, my psychotherapist will be so proud of me for bringing this story idea to fruition. “Neil,” he said at our most recent session, “sometimes I think you enjoy being stuck in cement.” I pondered that for a second and then said, “You’re oh so right, Doctor Cortecks. And, believe it or not, my wife figured that out on the day we met. Which is why she nicknamed me Jimmy. As in Hoffa.” Doctor Cortecks liked that crack so much he waived the session fee.

Anyway, returning to reality, a week ago Tuesday, on a most unseasonably balmy afternoon, I decided that a visit to LSUAM was in order. I hadn’t been there in several years and was in the mood for staring at attractive objects. So, into my car I climbed and headed south from my suburban abode, pretty quickly reaching the nothing-special section of Philadelphia in which La Salle University occupies space and time.

img_1366As I mentioned, La Salle’s campus is cute. And as I walked through sections of it on my way to the museum I had my eyes open for cute girls, girl-watching being one of my fave activities despite my certified status as a semi-ancient geezer. Sadly, I saw only one or two, as the grounds were strangely low on people of either gender. But that was OK, because my plan was to check out the ladies at the art museum . . . those on display, that is. It seemed like not the worst idea in the world to take long looks at the paintings and sculptures of females, and to breeze past all the others. And that’s exactly what I did.

img_1370La Salle University Art Museum is tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building primarily filled with classrooms. The museum is small, seven or eight modestly-sized rooms and a couple of hallways, and its contents are quite good. Me, I like museums of this sort where you don’t have to spend half your life examining the wares. To art lovers in the Philadelphia region I recommend a visit. You’ll get to see beautiful stuff, from ancient times to the present, by famous folks (Tintoretto, the Renaissance great, for crying out loud; Jacob van Ruisdael; Henry Ossawa Tanner; Alex Katz) and lots of equally fine pieces by artists you’ve probably never heard of (click here to find the museum’s website).

I suppose I gazed upon 50 or 60 artworks depicting females. And as I gave some thought to my story theme afterwards, four of those depicted women tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I write a few words about them. I’m often eager to please, so I’ll take them up on it.

img_1379To begin, I was wowed by the natural charm and beauty of Father’s Return, painted around 1850 by Harriet Cany Peale, a Pennsylvanian. In the painting, two kids are excited as can be by the sight of their dad walking towards the homestead. He has been away on business or whatever, probably for several or more days. His wife, though, isn’t looking at him. Instead, her eyes are focused on and dripping with love for her young daughter held in her arms. Hey, hubby can wait! Peale swamped the painting with browns and muted greens. There’s nothing flashy except for the little girl’s orange dress and the mother’s bright lips. Amidst all of that, though, it was the mother’s eyes, nothing more than large, dark dots, that I found myself drawn to. They say a lot.

img_1384The lady featured in Maria Brooks’ The Letter shows us a gaze of another sort. Brooks, a Brit, painted her in 1884.  As the story goes, the woman in question has just read a letter from her seafaring sweetheart. And she misses him plenty, as the aching numbness in her eyes makes most clear. This to me is a really lovely painting. Its tight framing, the limited choice of colors, the way the letter reader’s faintly pink skin melds into her surroundings, are parts of an excellent balancing act. The picture made me feel kind of wistful, which is what I’m sure Brooks meant it to do.

Gazes, eyes and lips . . . we’ll wind up these proceedings with some more comments about them, because I was struck by similarities between two works, a painting from about 1930 by the American modernist Alfred Maurer, and a small wooden sculpture made at an unknown point during the 1900s by an uncredited artist in Africa’s Ivory Coast.

img_1407img_1420

Maurer’s oil, titled Woman In A Window, is heavily in debt to Cubism, the fractured take on things pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1900s. Sure, this lady ain’t about to win any beauty contests, but I found her loveable. She’s a happy individual. Just look at those big, smiling eyes and the lips giving out an ooh. I’m going to guess that she’s looking through the window at a fun event, maybe a parade, maybe a bunch of children playing games. And, in my view anyway, the window lady has a close relative at the museum, a sister. Needless to say that’s the woman of the African sculpture, who displays not quite but almost the same expressions as Maurer’s heroine. I saw amazement in her eyes and wonder on her lips. She’s not showing her inner feelings as much as Maurer’s gazer, but she is no less enthralled by whatever it is she’s looking at.

Well, there’s plenty to be said for spending time with works of art. They are open to all sorts of interpretations. They can make you think, make you feel swell, not so swell and everything in between. I drove home from La Salle University Art Museum with more than a few notions and emotions skipping around in my little ol’ head.

 

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Is Keith Richards About To Become Boring?

Last week a reader took a look at an article that I launched into cyberspace during the first month of this publication’s life. Which was April 2015. I know this happened because WordPress, the genius company that provides the software for my and millions of other websites, gives statistical information to bloggers, letting them know, among other things, which stories have been looked at and how often. The aforementioned reader was the first to have set eyes on the piece in many a moon.

Photo by Cameron Brown
Photo by Cameron Brown

Likewise, the Moon had slid around Planet Earth mucho times since last I’d thought about that story. Weighed down with a way too long title (Are We Just Boring As We Get Older? Jackson Browne And I Say It Ain’t Necessarily So. Click here to read the article), it’s a short contemplation on aging that I was inspired to write after listening to a conversation that Jackson Browne had with a radio host a few months earlier. The interviewer, David Dye, and Jackson are well into their 60s. That sobering fact must have been the reason for David’s asking Jackson “are we just boring as we get older?” Jackson, an amazingly thoughtful and insightful guy, gave some reassuring comments in response to the query. To sum them up, what he said is that being absorbed in music, as a listener or performer, is a swell way to slow down Father Time’s advances.

Well, maybe that’s true in general. But in my case Father Time has been gaining on me, despite my being a music lover, faster than a speeding motherf***er bullet. I was powerfully reminded of this the other day when I forgot not to swallow the pits of the 15 prunes that I down daily to keep my engine lubricated. I should listen to my wife Sandy when she tells me that I need to buy pitted prunes. Next time I’m at the store I’ll pick up the no-pits variety. If I remember.

Anyway, being reintroduced to my April 2015 story made me take a good, hard look at myself.  My physical and mental declines were, alas, a given. But how was I, on the cusp of the big 7-0, measuring up in the boring department? Was the meager supply of coolness that I’d been lugging around all my life on the decline? Just thinking about the possibility that this might be the case started to bring me down. That’s when my phone began to ring.

Photo: Ruven Afanador
Photo: Ruven Afanador

“Matey, how’s life been treatin’ ya?” my longtime friend Keith Richards asked. “Haven’t spoken to ya in ages. I’ve been on the contemplative side lately and figured my chum Neil is who I should talk with. How’s Sandy? How’s your blog comin’ along?”

“Sandy’s fine, Keith. Thanks for asking. And my blog? Man, it’s a struggle. The writing’s going OK, but finding people to read the stories is a battle and a half. Speaking of which, Keith, how come I get the feeling you never take a look at anything I write?”

There was a moment of silence on the other end. Then Keith, who is 73, spoke. Somehow his voice was even lower in pitch and growlier than usual. “Sorry about that, pardner. It’s true. But that’ll be changin’, along with a lot of things. Neil, I’m gonna start cuttin’ back soon. Downsizin’. Once I get my life all nice and streamlined I’ll have time to read your stories. Don’t ya worry about that, bro.”

“Downsizing? You, Keith-o? What are you talking about? You’re ageless, man. You’re the guy the rules don’t apply to. Keith, what’s going on?”

Is this where Keith plans to move?
Is this where Keith plans to move?

“Neil, I gotta tell ya I wouldn’t have believed any of this even a month ago. But I’m gettin’ tired. I don’t feel like makin’ records no more. Don’t feel like tourin’ with The Stones no more. Don’t feel like stayin’ up all night partyin’ and gettin’ stoned, for the love of Mike! Yeah, I’ve had enough of fun and games and complications. I’ve got houses all over the world and I’m gonna sell ’em. Too much upkeep and bother . . . who needs it? Patti [Keith’s wife] and me, we’ve given this a lot of thought. We’re gonna move into a 55-and-over retirement community in Connecticut. Not sure which one yet. Life’ll be easier. A lot easier. That’ll be good for me, and it’s what I want.”

“Holy crap, amigo. Are you kidding? This is ridiculous. The world needs heroes and idols, Keith. You’ll be letting millions of people down.”

“My mind’s made up, chum. My perspectives have changed. Neil, I wanna live simply and quietly, just like you do. Describe one of your typical days for me. I’m takin’ notes.”

I heard the sounds of pen upon paper as I did what my pal had asked. By the way, I went into the genesis of our friendship in a previous article that you can read by clicking here. “Well, I get up around 7. In the morning, needless to say. I tidy up in the bathroom, put on some clothes and go outside to pick up the newspaper from the front lawn. Then I drink juice and coffee, eat 15 prunes, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle, take a nap on the couch. Keith, before I know it it’s one o’clock and time for lunch. After lunch I turn on the tube to watch The Bold And The Beautiful and General Hospital. Wouldn’t miss them. Then another nap and before I know it it’s dinner time. After dinner I lay out my clothes for the next day, play a few rounds of Go Fish with Sandy and work for a while organizing my collection of empty cereal boxes. By then it’s 8 PM and I’m ready to turn in. I’m busy, Keith. But simply and quietly, as you mentioned.”

“My man! Neil, you’re livin’ the dream and I’m gonna join ya in it. People will laugh, but I won’t care. ‘Booring!’ they’ll say, but screw ’em. You and I know better, don’t we, pal?”

“Keith, when you and Patti move into your new place, let me know. I’ll drive to Connecticut and we’ll hang. We haven’t done that in years, what with you flying all over the globe with The Stones. It’ll be nice. And maybe that’ll inspire me to write a story about you for my blog. The New Keith Richards is what I’ll call it.”

“Yeah, man, it’s a deal. Gotta go now, Neil. The laundry needs to be done and the trash needs takin’ out. Patti’s gettin’ me trained for my new way of life. Peace out, brother.”

Indeed, indeed.

 

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Almost (A Musical Story)

A couple of weeks ago my brother Richard sent me an email about music. A friend of his had burned a copy of an album for him, a record that Richie never had listened to before. “Have you ever heard David Crosby’s album If I Could Only Remember My Name? It’s excellent,” Richie wrote. Well, my memories of this Crosby opus, which came out in 1971, were beyond fuzzy. I wrote back to Richie: “I think I knew the Crosby album a long time ago. Is that the one with Almost Cut My Hair? I hated that song.” Concluding this magnificently scintillating exchange of questions and observations, Richie wrote back: “Almost Cut My Hair isn’t on it.”

Outer cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name
Outer cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name

I then put Almost Cut My Hair out of mind, where it belonged. But, lo and behold, three days later the highly unexpected happened. I was out doing errands, the car radio tuned to The Loft, a channel on SiriusXM satellite radio. As I pulled into my bank’s parking lot to take out a few bucks from its ATM, the infamous Crosby song, which I hadn’t heard in who knows how long, began to play (click here to listen). I couldn’t believe my ears. And you know what? My opinion about it hadn’t changed. I hated it. Fifteen seconds into the tune Crosby began singing some of the dumbest lyrics around.

Almost cut my hair.
Happened just the other day.
It’s gettin’ kind of long.
I could’ve said it was in my way.

Oy vey! I know that Crosby intended Almost Cut My Hair to be a statement of defiance, a paean to personal freedom. But it’s hard to relate to words so clunky and lame. David Crosby, a legendary talent whose resume famously includes membership in The Byrds; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was having a very off day when the words to Almost Cut My Hair spilled from his brain. I forgive him. After all, anybody who composed Guinnevere (click here to listen) and Long Time Gone (click here), which Crosby did, is more than A-OK in my book. And he could (and still can) sing like an angel, though gruff was the order of the day for Almost Cut My Hair.

Nevertheless, I was taken aback by Almost’s reentering my life less than 75 hours after my brother’s email had loosened from the dusty corners of my cranium the fact that the song even existed. I examined the situation from all angles and, illogical and prone to belief in fantasy as I am,  easily concluded that there had to be a reason for the occurrence. But what was the reason? Why, it could only be one thing: I was meant to write a piece about song lyrics that always have made me cringe, lyrics that suck big time shall we say. Such as those of Almost Cut My Hair, of course, and especially of A Horse With No Name (click here). The words to the latter strike me as the absolute worst I’ve ever encountered, especially this line: ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain — Yo, what the f**k? That loser, and plenty of others in the song, give me pain. As if the bottom-of-the-barrel wordsmanship mattered in the least to the band America, one of whose members (Dewey Bunnell) wrote the song. America, as we all know, had a mega-hit with the nameless horse in 1971. And its popularity on the airwaves remains considerable to this day. America has been laughing all the way to the bank for a long time.

As we can see, my idea for a piece about terrible lyrics looked promising. If I had continued to think about it I’m sure I’d have come up with several more numbers whose lyrics can sit proudly beside those of Almost Cut My Hair and of A Horse With No Name. However, that article is going to have to wait awhile and will need a measure of readjustment. And that’s because, shortly before I sat down to begin writing, I clicked my way over to YouTube to give Almost Cut My Hair another listen, aiming to pinpoint all the reasons I can’t stand it. Holy crap! All of a sudden I found myself listening to the song with a refreshed set of ears. Sure, the lyrics still stunk — that hadn’t changed — and Crosby’s angry vocal stance rang as false as a cracked bell. But the instrumental work on the track . . . somehow I’d never really paid attention to it before, and it rocked very righteously. I was smacked in the face by roaring guitars, seething keyboards and pounding drums. I shrugged off Almost’s dopey lyrics and overblown vocals and gave myself over to its mighty, surging roar. By the time the song ended I had changed my tune. That’s fine. In fact, I was glad about it. Hell, being open and flexible often is what life’s all about.

I now am nearing the end of this wee tale. Before I lay down my weary head I should mention a couple of items that will help tighten some loose knots. First, Almost Cut My Hair comes from Déjà Vu, the 1970 disc by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that spawned several big hits, including Teach Your Children (click here) and Our House (click here). Somewhat oddly, Crosby is the sole singer on Almost. His bandmates, each in possession of unique and striking pipes, sat this one out vocally. But they powered the song majestically with their instruments.

Second, a trip to my basement, where I store the many vinyl albums I bought decades ago, confirmed what I suspected might be true. Namely, that I own a copy of If I Could Only Remember My Name. The last time I’d given it a spin most likely was a year or two after its release. Conscientious journalist that I am, I went upstairs to the living room, pulled the platter from its housing and placed it on my music system’s turntable. And then I listened to both sides. As already noted, my brother Richie thinks that If I Could Only is excellent. I’d rate it almost that high. Trippy and shape-shifting, the songs on the album take you on a complex ride. Good job, David. Good job.

Inner cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby is at bottom right corner.
Inner cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby is at bottom right corner.

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Driving In My Car (A Musical Story)

Music, music, music. Since I was 10 or so years old — back in the days when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel — music has given me kicks, highs and peace of mind way beyond any of my other interests. The hours I’ve spent listening to music, reading about music and thinking and yapping about music are so enormous in number I don’t know how I found the time to hold down a job, let alone get married and maintain that union. Miracles sometimes do happen.

But, you know, I’m nowhere near the music freak that I used to be. Haven’t been for the last 10 or more years. I still go to clubs and auditoriums to catch concerts, but only one fourth as often as in my youthful prime. And at home, where once I played albums and CDs to death, listening to them and radio stations with the laserlike intensity of a neurosurgeon, I now half-listen more often than not, usually not reaching even that degree of concentration.

Yup, it took nearly forever to happen, but my obsession with music, drawing inspiration from my hairline, has been receding fast. Hell, keeping up that relentless pace began to seem nutty. “There’s more to life than music,” I must have said to myself at some point. “You need to find new hobbies, pal, like giving nifty new names each week to your pet hamsters and gerbils. Or organizing the garments in your closets and drawers alphabetically by brand name.”

Yet, despite my slackened involvement chez moi and at music venues, there’s still one place where I really love to listen to tunes, lapping them up greedily, paying attention to the lyrics of those with lyrics, and grooving like a hippie in training: In my car, almost needless to say. Maybe it has something to do with the sound waves bouncing around gleefully in a small, enclosed space. Or the distraction that songs provide from the stop-and-go misery that 90% of my driving entails. Whatever, good songs in my car raise my spirits rocket-quick.

And here’s another part of the reason why: My car is equipped with SiriusXM satellite radio, which I adore. So many channels, so many musical genres. When I climb in the car I can barely wait to start tapping the radio’s touchscreen buttons. And very often my destination is channel number 30, The Loft, where anything goes, though the concentration is on singer-songwriter and rock music veins.

It’s not as though I smile and clap at everything The Loft plays, however. Hardly. Lots of times I’m not impressed, and so begin racing madly from one channel to another in search of a tune or artist that I can relate to. But often there are occasions when The Loft, or another spot on the Sirius dial, seems to be reading my mind and my inner needs, sending out songs that caress me just right.

img_1348img_1354That’s what happened on Wednesday morning of last week when out I headed on what would prove to be a slow, slow journey. As seemingly always, I got caught by the red of the first traffic light I reached when attempting to exit my neighborhood, unable to make my desired right turn because of the non-turning hunk of junk in front of me. At last the light flipped colors. I made the right and then crawled 200 feet to where all traffic was stopped due to the gates being down at the local railroad tracks. It figured. Choo choo, motherf***er! But what did I care? For I was listening to The Loft, and by the time I reached my destination, a supermarket half a mile from my house, I’d heard two songs, back to back, that sent me aloft: Elliott Smith’s I Figured You Out and Late by Ben Folds. And half an hour later, on my way back home from the store, The Loft played another fine tune, Kyle Morton’s Survivalist Fantasy. I’d hit the trifecta!

What I liked about the three songs, beyond the way they made me go all mushy inside, is that I’d never heard them before. I’m always on the prowl for new goods. I Figured You Out, which Smith wrote years ago for Mary Lou Lord, who recorded it for one of her albums, is a knowing look at a broken relationship sung from the female’s perspective. Smith, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, never included I Figured You Out on any of his own albums. What I heard on The Loft is Smith’s original demo of the song. It was unearthed and released recently. The relaxed pace, Smith’s typically hushed voice, and more than anything the chiming melody really got to me. It’s one of those songs that can get stuck in your head. Very sadly there probably isn’t much more unreleased Smith material in the vaults. The poor guy left us in 2000, likely a suicide. The coroner, though, wasn’t fully able to confirm the cause of death.

Ben Folds, like Elliott Smith a singer-songwriter, never has been one of my favorites. His voice strikes me as vanilla, and his piano playing, loaded with loud, broad chords, seems scripted. Who knows, then, why I took to Late. I liked the melody, that’s for sure, and Folds’ loud, broad piano chords rubbed me the right way for a change. And I dug the lyrics, which flowed like the sentences of a good short story. Two days later, doing a few smidgeons of research for this article, I found out that Folds and Smith had been buddies and that Late is Folds’ tribute to his friend. Leave it to The Loft’s crack curators to know about the Smith/Folds friendship and to follow an obscure Smith tune with an homage.

Batting third in the lineup is Kyle Morton. He’s one of the multitudes of musicians who entered the marketplace within the past 20 years about whom I know next to nothing. But a few days ago I learned a few things. Morton’s main claim to fame is as lead singer of the indie tock band Typhoon, and Survivalist Fantasy comes from his brand new, and first, solo album What Will Destroy You. Also, he has suffered from Lyme disease since childhood. His physical woes have colored many of the songs he writes with a dark tint. But, like just about every other songwriter, he can’t ignore love. Survivalist Fantasy is a quietly lilting and beckoning track about love in the ruins.

Parking in front of my house I hauled the grocery bags out of the car. An obvious point had been made. Namely, this is a great time to be alive when it comes to music. Most of the worthy stuff from the past is available to hear, and the avalanches of good, new material are unending. Praise the musical gods,  whose prime mission is to oversee the soothing of the savage human soul.

 

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The Book Within Me

Some people think big. Big hopes, big dreams and big efforts to make those hopes and dreams come true. Me, not so much. I think modest at best, small more often than not. It’s just my basic nature, and always has been.

dulcolax-imagesMy great pal Alan, though, has a different opinion about my abilities. For example, he has urged me a few times to write a book. He, one of the handful of faithful who to my amazement truly seem to enjoy at least some of the stories I’ve been lobbing into cyberspace via this blog, believes I have it in me to design and bring forth a thriller. He has suggested that the plot be set on Cape Cod, a region I know well. Alan is a dreamer. Does he have any idea how I often strain and sweat like the King Of Constipation to squeeze out a blog entry of a mere 1,000 or so words? Alan, if you’re reading this, believe me when I say that daily doses of Dulcolax wouldn’t make those articles emerge any easier. So, a book, you say? Hey, man, are you joking? My inner strength and energies would have to quadruple before I’d be able even to begin entertaining the notion. Basically, fuhgeddaboudit.

Hmmm, on the other hand maybe I speaketh too hastily. I often do. No doubt writing a book is an alluring idea. Could it be that Alan is on to something? Has he peered deep into my core, à la Superman, and spotted an alternative me? As in the bestselling me. The me whose tightly wrought and pulsating fictional offering projects me into television and radio studios presided over by the likes of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross and Jimmy Fallon. Yeah man, I can dig it! Who wouldn’t? I mean, the royalty checks will be pouring in. The invitations to swank A-list parties will arrive by the dozens. Gorgeous girls will mob me on the streets. Yeah, I definitely can dig it.

OK, Alan, you’ve convinced me. The book is within me. Somewhere. I think. All I have to do is birth it. What should the first step be? Oh right, there needs to be a plot. Well, in that regard I’ll try not to think about what another of my great pals Dave once said. He and I went to high school with Arthur Agatston, who years later became famous as the author of The South Beach Diet books. Dave was wowed by Arthur’s success. “Neil, I’d write a book too,” Dave said to me back then, “except for one thing: I’ve got nothing to say.”

img_0370Ouch! Like I mentioned I’ll try not to think about Dave’s insightful comments. I’ve got plenty to say, don’t I? And placing the action on Cape Cod, a 70-mile-long spit of land filled with villages, sands, marshes and trees, surrounded on three sides by majestic, endless waters, is certain to inspire my writing. Think, Neil, think. What’s the most unusual and intriguing aspect of The Cape you’ve come upon over the years? I know — the dune shacks, those 20 or so primitive structures scattered among the ridiculously huge dunes of The Cape’s outer regions. Folks like Eugene O’Neill and Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock used to squirrel away in the shacks, seeking their Muses and churning out product. These days the shacks are in governmental hands, and are rented to modern-day hardy and artistic types (click here to read about the dune shacks). The shacks are isolated, not easy to find. The perfect scene of a crime.

Ah, the crime. What shall the crime be? Who will be the perpetrator, and who the victim? And what will be the reason that the crime occurred? You know, I believe it’s all coming together for me. Suddenly I’ve been zapped with a giant squirt of inspiration. Here goes:

img_0383I’m going to model the narrator/possible victim upon myself. Why not? I’ve gotten up close and pretty personal with several of the dune shacks over the years, walking around them, peering inside through their windows and admiring their no-facilities ambience. And for years I’ve been dreaming of the day when I’ll be spending substantial time in one of the shacks and its surrounding desert-like wilderness. Oh, the joy of peeing and dumping in sand pits or in the Atlantic Ocean! My life needs a major dose of that kind of back-to-nature reality.

Anyway, getting back to the plot. The time is autumn 2016, a Monday at 9 PM. The narrator, who goes by the nickname Cod Man, has been living for seven weeks in a shack located close to where the dunes peter out and meadows of beach grasses take over. A hop, skip and a jump beyond the grasses is the roiling Atlantic. Cod Man’s stay, per the rental agreement, is slated to end in one week. That situation is making Cod Man very nervous, because he had been confident that his shack experience would result in the creation of the book he’d put on the back burner for the past 10 years. Instead, the book, a novel about a Pennsylvania man whose world falls apart when his dog abandons him to take a job as chief mascot in Moscow’s Grand Hotel Trump, simply isn’t coming together. The reams of paper upon which Cod Man has been writing are, he fully knows, filled with dreck. “Holy crap!” Cod Man yells from his wobbly writing desk. “I’ve been out here for two months and have zilch to show for it. I’m bummed. Totally bummed.”

Moments later comes a pounding on the shack’s door. Standing outside in the moonlit night, a loaded pistol in his right hand, is Dick Hedd, Cod Man’s next door neighbor in Pennsylvania. Dick has tracked down Cod Man and is out for revenge. You see, three years earlier a friendly two-man game of Scrabble at Cod Man’s house had gone highly sour when Cod Man, upon throwing down two seven-letter words (halfwit and jackass) in the course of the evening, began to gloat. His gloating grew louder and wilder, reaching insane heights. Dick Hedd, certain that the seven-letter words were meant as commentaries on his personality, fumed. He stormed out the door before game’s end. And he never forgot or forgave Cod Man’s arrogance. The gents hadn’t talked since then. All the while, Dick waited patiently for his moment to avenge the foul deed. Among Cape Cod’s dunes that moment had arrived.

Little more need I say at this point. I have the book’s remaining plot lines worked out quite well. Everything fits. Everything is meaningful and believable.

Now all I have to do is write the entire story. Soon I shall begin.

 

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(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

La La Land: Now, That’s A Great Movie!

The answer was staring me in the face, but it took a while before registering with me. There I was the other day, pawing through the nooks and crannies of my mind in search of the next topic for my blog. I was in the mood to write another of the impressionistic, ruminating pieces that have been rolling off the assembly line pretty regularly the past few months. Trouble is I hadn’t had any mini-adventures of late that I could wrap any impressionistic ruminations around. That’s when I turned my thoughts in a different direction, a cinematic one. My wife Sandy and I had taken a trip recently to a local theater where we sat close to the screen, figuring that doing so would help us become one with the movie’s charms if what we were about to see turned out to be as good as we were hoping it would.

img_1260Which is a longwinded introduction to my announcing that I have some thoughts to impart about La La Land, a musical that came out at the tail end of 2016 and now is in wide release throughout the States. This, to me, is a great movie. An example of near-perfection. An alluring and enticing creation that deserves the viewership of all who have good hearts and soft spots therein.

Yeah, I’m prone to gushing. That’s OK. There are worse ways to be. And when it comes to La La Land I’m not the only gusher by a long shot. I don’t read a lot of movie reviews, but the reviewers whose words I took a look at fell hard for this one. Sandy, who is more tuned in than I to a lot of things, confirmed that seemingly everyone carrying the title of critic had pointed their thumbs upward after watching La La Land.

What, then, do we have here? La La Land is a girl-meets-boy story. And, when well done, that template is boffo, isn’t it? Hey, I hear a few of you in the back of the room murmuring “nah.” Get out! Class is dismissed for you.

img_1334La La Land’s girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspriring actress caught up in the confidence-squashing eddies of the audition mill. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a sensitive-fingered jazz pianist scrambling to make a living while dreaming of the day he opens his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian first cross paths on a Los Angeles freeway. The freeway, witness to a traffic jam from Hell, becomes the stage for the movie’s opening sequence, a lilting and athletic song and dance routine unfurled by scores of traffic stuckees who exit their vehicles to sing and jump and prance giddily on car roofs and hoods, making the best of what normally would be a real bad situation. Finally, the tangle of metal and tires begins to ease up. But Mia, slow to gun her engine, becomes the victim of relentless horn blasting from someone in a car behind hers. Sebastian. To which she responds by flipping the bird at him as he pulls out and breezes by. Take that. fella!

Needless to say, things become better between Mia and Sebastian when, as fate absolutely would have it, they unexpectedly meet again and again in The City Of Angels and realize that they are meant for each other and destined to fall in love. Which they do. But will love endure? La La Land, though bright and frothy much of the time, isn’t that way all of the time, so the answer to the question is far from a given. Damien Chazell, La La Land’s writer and director, throws more than a few dollops of darkness and pain into the mix. La La Land is a colorful, romantic bonbon laced with the realities of life.

img_1337It didn’t take long for me to fall under La La Land’s spell. Stone and Gosling possess the type of feels-right screen chemistry that often is elusive. Their Mia and Sebastian banter easily with one another, before the day arrives when cracks open in their relationship, and the two stars sing and dance in a sweet and natural manner. The songs (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) that they and others emit are strong and tuneful. And sometimes piercing, as is the case with the stream of consciousness-like Audition (The Fools Who Dream), sung by Mia/Stone at a, natch, movie audition. And La La Land is filled with sequences so gorgeously done I felt honored to be watching the flick. Especially when Mia and Sebastian, at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, take each others’ hands and begin to dance, soon lifting from the floor to merge with the cosmos projected on the observatory dome’s underside.

You don’t see a whole lot of original movie musicals, which La La Land is, anymore. Or musicals based on stage productions either, for that matter. Both varieties used to be a staple of the film industry, but that was eons ago as measured in cinematic years. Don’t know why they’ve faded away. I mean, who doesn’t love The Wizard Of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, An American In Paris, Cabaret . . . ? In any case, I left the theater thinking that La La Land is up there with those titans. You have to give it to Chazelle, who also scripted and directed 2014’s Whiplash, a nerve-wracking, music-themed opus that decidedly isn’t a musical. The guy has immense guts to have attempted La La Land, not to mention the vision and skills to pull it off. And he’s only 32. My God, when I was his age I hadn’t even mastered tying my shoes yet. Come to think of it, I still haven’t.

Well, I could go on but I won’t. You get the idea. If you haven’t already seen La La Land, make a date.

 

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