Dinah, Sarah, Abbey And Michelle: A Snowy And Jazzy Story

Three weeks ago, we here in my section of the greater Philadelphia region were blessed with a storm that deposited a foot of heavy, messy snow. Ooh la la! I spent four hours, spread over three days, hurling the white stuff off of my walkways, driveway and rear deck. That’s a lot of work for a guy who has made a depressingly large number of revolutions around our friend the Sun.

That barrage was the seventh or eighth snow event this year. So, when the forecasters told us to expect plenty more snow for last week’s Wednesday, I went into a bit of a funk. “Enough with the shoveling already! This winter bites the big one big-time! In other words, it f*cking sucks!” I loudly thought to myself.

Fortunately, as it turned out, the outcome could have been worse, though it was bad enough. Nine inches of white matter descended onto my area, white matter that was, mercifully, far less dense than had been predicted. I spent an hour and a half that Wednesday afternoon lashed to my snow shovel, and then the job was done. I went back into the house feeling okay but, unbeknownst to me at the time, in need of some soul sustenance.

Enthroned at the dinner table at 6:15 PM, my wife Sandy and I chomped away and happily chit-chatted (Sandy: “Please pass the salt.” Neil: “Huh?” Sandy: “I need the salt. Please pass it.” Neil: “What?” Sandy: “Pass the salt, you nitwit!” Neil: “There’s no need to shout!”)

As we ate, musical accompaniment was provided by WRTI, Temple University’s radio station that spends half of each day (6:00 AM till 6:00 PM) spinning classical fare and the other half broadcasting jazz selections. So absorbed am I with filling my maw at dinnertime, music ordinarily connects only moderately with me then. But that wasn’t the case on the after-shoveling evening in question.

Around 6:30 PM, in between bites, I perked up my ears. A distinctive voice, one I recognized, began to soothe me. And the words being sung seemed very right. They got to me, made me go all warm and fuzzy inside. “I took a trip on a train/And I thought about you./I passed a shadowy lane/And I thought about you.”

It was Dinah Washington singing I Thought About You, a number written in 1939 by Jimmy Van Heusen (who composed the music) and Johnny Mercer (who penned the words). It’s a great song, one that I and most of us have heard over the years. Sinatra, Diane Schuur, Ella and a million others have recorded it. Dinah Washington’s version came out in 1959 on her album What A Diff’rence A Day Makes! Dinah nailed it.

Dinner all of a sudden, as good as it was, became better. But WRTI wasn’t done with me, thanks to Ms. Blue, that evening’s program host. Half an hour later I found my ears doing that perking-up thing again when another female voice captivated me. I knew whose voice it was. Sarah Vaughan’s. And I knew the song too, Can’t Get Out Of This Mood. It has a moody lyric, yup. And in this recording the instruments swagger and caress, as often is the case when jazz practitioners are at work. The number is damn good, not least because it was placed in Sarah’s hands. Or should I say mouth? Jimmy McHugh (music) and Frank Loesser (lyrics) wrote the tune in 1942. Sarah waxed it eight years later.

Well, Sandy and I, by then removed to the living room sofa, kept the dial set to WRTI for another two hours. And the only pieces that really registered with me during that time were by lady vocalists: Abbey Lincoln and Michelle Lordi. Somehow my mind and emotional mechanisms weren’t programmed that night to find any manner of enlightenment in non-vocal pieces or in songs warbled by persons of the male variety, though both sorts abounded on the WRTI airwaves throughout the evening. No, the female voice was what my shoveling-weary arms and shoulders and all the rest of me needed for sustenance, for rejuvenation. If Sandy and I hadn’t turned on WRTI that evening, I’d have gone to bed in an untuned state of being.

Ah, Abbey Lincoln. She’s a favorite of mine, a powerful singer and a songwriter who examined the human heart and the imbalances in society with a sharp eye. But she wasn’t the author of the tune that I heard on WRTI, which was Lost In The Stars, a melancholy rumination from the 1949 musical of the same name by Kurt Weill (music) and Maxwell Anderson (book and lyrics). If Abbey’s cries and laments don’t move you, especially those that begin at the song’s three-minute mark, then you’re a lost cause. Her recording dates from 1959.

As for No Moon At All, the composition sung by Michelle Lordi, it was a new one to me. It’s a terrific song, playful and perceptive. No Moon entered the world in 1947, the work of David Mann (music) and Redd Evans (lyrics). Michelle’s version, witty and jaunty (but not annoyingly jaunty), entered the world last year. Her vocal approach meshes ideally with the tight jazz combo frolicking with her. Dig those guitar and trumpet solos.

While compiling that which you currently are reading, I realized that only one of the four jazz vocalists — Michelle — is with us in the flesh. Dinah, Sarah and Abbey left the planet in 1963, 1990 and 2010, respectively. The three of them were superior talents. And also quite famous.

As for Michelle Lordi, who is not a big name at all, I believe her to be a marvelous singer. She’s not show-offy, for which I give the thumbs-up sign, and she’s able to find her way deeply into a lyric. She resides somewhere in my neck of the woods and performs regularly in it, as well as in The Big Apple and here and there too. I saw her perform in, of all places, a pub two miles from my house three years ago, and wrote about the show. I guess my review was pretty much a rave.

Well, the time has come for me to mention that yours truly has been tinkering with this essay a whole lot. There’s only so much tinkering a guy can stand! Adios, for now, amigos. I hope you enjoyed the music contained herein.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on social media or via email. I thank you.)

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A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story

Some stories coalesce properly, their meaningful themes presented intelligently, their aims met, their pacing expertly handled. Such stories have a powerful reason for being.

And then there are those stories that don’t have any good reason for being at all, such as the one I’m attempting to bang out right now. Holy crap, sweat beads are pouring from my brow, straining so hard am I to create product out of the thinnest threads of inspiration. My editor, Edgar Reewright, whom you possibly might recall from his previous appearances on these pages (click here and also here, for instance), couldn’t believe how low I was reaching when I tried to convince him that it didn’t matter if I published a pretty pointless article, considering that an infinitesimally small percentage of the human population ever reads anything I pen anyway.

“Edgar,” I said to him over the phone recently, “I’m shit out of decent story ideas. But I have to publish something, you know. Can’t let too many days elapse between articles, right? Right.”

And then I quickly summarized for him what I had in mind. I was met with dead silence for 15 seconds after I stopped talking. Finally Edgar spoke.

“Neil, you’re out of your friggin’ skull if you green-light this piece. It’s ridiculous. It’s dumpster-worthy. I want no part of it. You’re on your own with this one, cowboy.” And he hung up. Brusquely.

I took a deep breath. Tried to steady my nerves. And decided that, yes, the next day (February 11) I would proceed with my plan by beginning the writing process. Which is what I’m doing right now, as today indeed is the 11th. On what date I’ll complete the opus and punch the Publish button, I can’t say yet. But it will, of course, be well before Hell freezes over, unless that event occurs within the extremely near future.

The saga began a few hours before I dialed Edgar’s phone number. I was sitting on my living room sofa, trying to come up with something to write about, when I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section and began perusing the box scores of the previous day’s National Basketball Association (i.e., professional) games. In the distant past, when I was one of the way too many sports fanatics stomping around on our blue planet, I not only read the box scores every day during the pro basketball season, I also knew who just about every player was. My fanaticism having dissolved long ago, these days I’m familiar with maybe one out of six basketballers. But I continue to read the box scores nonetheless. What, like I have anything better to do?

Lo and behold, when I reached the final box score on the page, a synopsis of the February 9 game between the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, my eyes were drawn to an oddity in the Houston listings. What the listings contained was something I can’t remember ever coming across before during the countless hours I’ve spent in my life studying box scores from various sports. To wit, the final three surnames listed for Houston, meaning the gentlemen who were the last three to enter the game for the Rockets, were Green, Black and Brown. Wow! Three colors in a row! I had no idea who the players were (it turns out that their first names, respectively, are Gerald, Tarik and Markel), but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I, story idea-wise, now had something to work with. Colors would lead me to good places I naively assumed.

Maybe, I mused, I’ll package the green/black/brown coincidence with a discussion of my favorite colors then and now (yellow when I was a kid, blue in my adulthood), some thoughts on the insanely huge numbers of colors described and displayed in Wikipedia articles (click here, here and here to see them), and somehow bring the proceedings to a tuneful conclusion with entertainment by musicians whose names are those of colors.

But on second thought all of that seemed too much, too ungainly. What, after all, do I have to say about the infinity of colors out there? Not a whole lot, except that it’ll drive you crazy when you’re trying to decide which color to choose for your living room or bedroom walls. Too damn much choice, as is the case with nearly everything nowadays.

And so I was left with music. Poor, pitiful me. Down to the dungeon I lumbered. It is there that I store my vinyl album collection, not to mention my world-class collection of pet spiders. I’ve got about 1,000 albums in all. And about 700 spiders. I’d decided to search for color names among the vinyl platters, which hold a nostalgic and esthetic spell over me, rather than from my sizeable trove of CDs. That’s because vinyl album covers have a whole lot more charm than their CD counterparts.

On the way down the stairs I further decided that I wanted color names that were surnames, not first names, in order to continue the pattern established by Monsieurs Green, Black and Brown. And I didn’t want to duplicate the colors already taken by the basketball guys. Thus, Red Garland (jazz pianist) and Pink Anderson (blues singer and guitarist) were out, as were James Brown, Jackson Browne and Al Green.

Patient readers, let me cut to the chase. I found only three musicians who met my goofy criteria. I selected one album by each. The musicians were jazz artists. I use the past tense because all of them, sadly, are gone. Only one (Horace Silver) is fairly well-known to the general public. The other two, Don Cherry and Michael White, decidedly aren’t, especially White. Silver, a prolific composer and hard-working band leader, played straight-ahead jazz. Cherry, one of my musical heroes, was an adventurer. His trumpet forays often would blister the atmosphere. White, who wielded an electric violin, possessed a mindset somewhat similar to Cherry’s. As a side note I’ll add that Horace and Don were major talents. Michael was good, but certainly not great.

Here then are three YouTube videos. Each offers a track from one of the albums whose front covers I’ve ever so lovingly photographed for this article.

A basketball box score. And three weirdly-chosen musicians. Yup, that’s what this story is all about. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

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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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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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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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Before, During And After Lunch: Slices Of Life And Of Pizza

I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of this blog. Not a whole lot, but enough to see that my stories — when you look at their sometimes straight, sometimes wavering and sometimes loopy as hell strokes — paint a pretty good picture of what I’m about. I’m not one to reveal all. I’ll never write a word, for instance, about the time, 40 years ago, when I went undercover in Nepal to help bring down the notorious Himalayan gang of bank robbers that dressed themselves in highly-convincing yeti costumes. Or about my space-boot shopping spree with Neil Armstrong a few days before he blasted off for the Moon. But I reveal plenty, I think.

Basically I’m a simple guy who does simple things. Well, simple cum lopsided things often might be a more accurate description. And for the last two and a half years I’ve been writing about them. My articles peer at, for the most part, typical days for yours truly, show what my interests are and have been, and show who has accompanied me (and whom I’ve accompanied) on this journey through what we affectionately call life.

Slices of life. Yeah, that’s what I usually find myself describing. And now that I’ve expended nearly 200 words in trying to establish a degree of context for this current opus, I’ll turn my attention in that direction. “Yo, you better, pal,” I hear a few voices saying. “Our time is limited. We’re this close to closing out your article and checking out some YouTube videos of skateboarding kangaroos.”

Right, right, ye whose attention span is shorter than Donnie Trump’s fuse (but not shorter than his dick). Here we go.

Last Friday I found myself heading north from my suburban Philadelphia abode. My car, having a mind of its own, drove itself two and a half miles to an establishment that ranks high on my ladder of places where I like to grab a bite for lunch. In fact, it probably is my favorite lunchtime eatery in my neck of the woods. And that’s because, speaking of slices, I believe that the slices of pie that one purchases at Nino’s Pizzarama are damn good. A card-carrying fool for pizza, I down them there two or three times a month (and I go to other pizza joints throughout each month too).

I ordered a slice of regular pie and one of Sicilian. They hit the spot regally, though I was slightly disappointed in the regular’s crust. Too chewy. The pie needed to have been left in the oven for another 20 or 30 seconds to become as crispy as it itself was hoping to become. Such is the life of pie.

While munching away, I couldn’t get out of my head a song I’d heard on the radio during my northward trek. It’s a very beautiful recording, one that I instantly became attached to soon after its release in 1968: Hickory Wind, by The Byrds. As always, it sounded wonderful.

Hickory Wind comes from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a magnificent country-rock album. The Byrds, famed for earlier numbers such as the psychedelic nugget Eight Miles High and the folk-rock staple Turn, Turn, Turn, had undergone some significant stylistic and personnel shifts by the time it was waxed. Three of the five original members were gone and new guys, most notably the space cowboy Gram Parsons, who helped push the band partly into country-music territory, were on board. Parsons is one of rock and roll’s legendary names, not only for his big musical talents, but for his wild and wooly and troubled life. He died of a drug overdose in 1973.

Gram Parsons is credited with having written Hickory Wind in 1968 with his musical compadre Bob Buchanan. (There is a dispute over the song’s authorship, by the way. Some claim that a little-known folksinger named Sylvia Sammons composed it, and that Parsons stole it from her. The truth never will be known, it seems.) It has been recorded by many since then, but The Byrds put it out first.

What a song. Wistful and melancholy, it stands you up straight and makes you think about the times when loneliness and an aching heart might have ruled your days. That’s Gram singing lead. In the car I melted as I listened to his yearning voice and to the sad, sad notes coming from Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar. Man, you want to be in a happy mood when you’re eating pizza. But me, I sat at one of Nino’s tables in a contemplative frame of mind, not fully able to concentrate on the powers of sweet tomato sauce, excellent melted cheese and could-be-better crust.

There’s much to be said for contemplative, though. It’s a state that can be good for the inner being, helping us to put things in perspective and, if we’re lucky, softening our defenses. On the way home from Nino’s I turned on the radio and found myself on the receiving end of another helping of such as Horace Silver‘s Lonely Woman filled the car. Silver, whose rich 60-year career in the jazz world ended with his passing in 2014, composed and recorded Lonely Woman in 1963. It came out in 1965 on his most famous album, Song For My Father.

There’s little I need to say about the song. It is subdued and righteous and should be better known than it is. A trio (Horace on piano, Roy Brooks on drums, and Gene Taylor on bass) perform Lonely Woman, Horace having decided that the tune would benefit if saxophone and trumpet, which appear on the majority of his recordings, sat this one out. Less sometimes is more. What’s more, Horace plays straight through Lonely Woman’s seven-minute length, having further decided that neither a bass solo nor drum solo were appropriate. Hats off to that.

Slices of life. Slices of pizza. I’m sure a spot-on connection could be drawn between them, and that slice-y metaphors are out there ripe for the picking. Those with bulbs brighter than mine would have no trouble drawing and picking. Which is why I now shall quietly exit the stage, before long to return with another tale of the sublimely simple. Till then, amigos . . .

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One Of Al Green’s Songs Righted My Ship For A While

Mount Digitalium

If I were younger by about 30 years I’d buy a good pair of hiking boots and some mountaineering gear and then haul my ass up to the top of Mount Digitalium. Once at its summit I’d catch my breath before laying into the resident gods who control the performance of the internet and of computer hardware and software on Planet Earth. These titans are, needless to say, magnificently intelligent. They also are f*cking pains. And they seem to get a big kick out of being the latter.

“Yo!” I’d yell at them. “I can’t take it no more. It’s bad enough that my desktop computer has had a nasty case of the freezing-ups for the last year. And a worse case of the displaying-message-alerts-that-make-no-sense. But did you have to slip a bottomless bottle of vodka to the computer monitor two weeks ago? I can barely make out anything on it since then. It’s taken wobbly and blurry to Olympian heights.”

“And that’s not all,” I’d continue. “This morning my wife Sandy wanted to take a look at her most recent credit card statement, wobbly and blurry be damned. She signed into her account, and you know what? That’s a stupid question because of course you know what, seeing that you caused the problem in the first place. I’ll tell you anyway — the statements section of the website was empty. Nothing was available to examine or to print out!

I would be shaking like crazy at this point. And the gods undoubtedly would let me shake for nearly forever before one of them made a comment or two.

“Thanks for stopping by, Earthling,” the chief god, Malfunctional, finally would say. “Now, though, it’s time for you to be on your way. Suck it up, fella, and figure out what your next steps should be. And, by the way, nobody ever said that life was easy for humans.”

That’s true. Nobody in their right mind ever did.

Back to what passes for reality. Still shaking, I fled the house and left Sandy to figure out what were the appropriate next steps, as I needed to be somewhere soon. Namely, at a local supermarket where once a week I bag and then load bakery items, donated by the market, into my car. Sandy delivers these goods to the food pantry she volunteers at.

Naturally, the credit card website situation wouldn’t disappear from my cranium. Man, I need to hire a personal assistant to handle tech issues for me and Sandy. It’d be worth it. That would free up more time for other aspects of living to rattle my very rattle-able nerves.

As I pulled out of the driveway, though, relief arrived. It came in the form of music, as often is the case for me. My benefactor was SiriusXM satellite radio’s The Loft, a channel that plays all sorts of good music. And the tune that filled the car’s interior and my ears as my journey to the supermarket began was a superb number that I hadn’t heard for some time: Al Green’s Tired Of Being Alone.

You know, there are hundreds of recordings that, when I hear them, I say to myself that they are just about as good as any recording possibly could be. That’s exactly what I thought when Tired Of Being Alone shot into my blood vessels and set me vibrating. A few simple, clear and rolling notes from an electric guitar, a handful of piercing trumpet blasts, and drums that snap steadily and regally set the table for Al’s entry. And what a pleading, powerful entry he makes. His is one of the great voices of the last 50 years, vulnerable when it needs to be, strong and sure when it doesn’t.

Not to downplay Green’s singing even a little bit, but I have to mention that I’m in love with the late Al Jackson Jr.’s drum work on Tired Of Being Alone. It couldn’t be more alive, even at the 1:47 mark when, empathizing with Green’s meandering, uncertain thoughts, it softens into a clickety-clack pattern for a spell. But when the spell breaks, Jackson’s drums explode, truly explode, as Green’s voice moves into vivid mode and female backup singers kick in loftily.

It all ends shortly after this, the dials in the studio having been gently turned to fade out the song. Maybe I wish that a different choice had been made conclusion-wise. I’d be a happy boy to be able to listen to another minute or more of Al’s and the gals’ and the instrumentalists’ amazing ride.

Or maybe it’s better that the proceedings were cut off artificially. After all, I was left breathless, a very good way to be left.

Al Green wrote Tired Of Being Alone in 1968. For various unimportant reasons it didn’t come out until 1971, and has been a pop music staple ever since. It’s a song about love, as most songs are. Al loves a girl. He can’t stop thinking about her. But she has sent him packing, and Al wants her back. He knows, though, that she’s unlikely to change her mind. But a guy can fantasize, can’t he? And that’s what Al does, ruminating during the song’s middle section about the nature of lost love and what he might be able to do to re-win a heart. With these words Al describes what many of us have felt at one time or another:

I’ve been wanting to get next to you, baby,
Sometimes I fold my arms and I say,
Oh baby, yeah, needing you has proven to me,
To be my greatest dream, yeah.

Many folks have heard Al Green sing Tired Of Being Alone not only on record but on stage. But will anyone ever encounter a stage version again? Hard to say. About 40 years ago religion called Al, and he, for the most part, left the pop music scene (his most recent tour was in 2012). He is the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tennessee. In an interview last year he left the door open for a return to public performance (click here), but I’m not holding my breath.

Yes, Al is doing what he must. And as he does so his many hits live on. I was a lucky individual to hear one of them on my way to the supermarket. It steadied my jangly nerves for a while. Thanks, Al. I needed that.

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Three Songs New To Me

“Yo, what the hell are you doing?” my editor, Edgar Reewright, shouted into the phone early last week. Wisely, I moved the receiver five inches away from my ear.

“I swear, never again will I take on a blogger as a client,” Edgar continued loudly. “Last week you wrote a story that featured three songs. And now you’re telling me that your next piece also is going to be about three songs? What gives, Neil? Can’t you come up with a different idea? How about writing about a childhood memory instead, like the time, when you were four years old, that you got your head stuck in an iron fence and Navy Seals had to be brought in to get you out? I tell you, if it weren’t for the $750 you pay me each week I’d drop you faster than I would a rattlesnake.”

“Edgar, maybe you mistake me for Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Updike,” I said. “They never lacked for things to write about. They were writing machines, for crying out loud. But me? Hey, story ideas don’t exactly flow from my cranium like lava. Right now, back-to-back pieces on music is the best that I can do. And how’d you find out about that iron fence incident anyway? The military’s report on it is locked away in their Too Weird To Be Made Public files.”

“Edgar,” I went on, “the check is in the mail. As always, it’s been a pleasure.”

I hung up. And Edgar didn’t call back.

Three songs it is then. A few weeks ago I heard them for the first time. They are good ones, two of them pretty spanking new and one an oldie that could be mistaken for a country-kissed soft rock number put on wax just yesterday. The tunes came to me via WXPN, a primo radio station in Philadelphia that should pay me a hefty fee for mentioning them as often as I have in my stories. WXPN loves to play new songs and obscure songs while finding plenty of space for ones we’ve heard a thousand times. I am one with the station’s mindset. That’s why XPN and I are pals.

I liked the three songs in question so much, I immediately made a note of their names and performers. Nightime Lady, by Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, was the first to reach my ears. Two days later, within minutes of each other, came Waxahatchee’s No Question and Zeek Burse’s Dry. As different as the three are, sonically-speaking, they share some common ground. Each examines love, for example, that most complicated and shape-shifting of emotions. And you can shake and groove to each of them, though the boogying you might do to Nightime Lady would be highly restrained compared with the workouts you’d get from the thrashing No Question and the pulsating Dry.

If I ever had heard Nightime Lady before, all memory of it was erased from my brain. I was slowly eating breakfast while leafing through the newspaper on a quiet Sunday morning when it came on the air. “Man, this is a lovely song,” I thought to myself. “Who is this? Sam Beam? Conor Oberst?” No, of course, it wasn’t either of those present-day heroes. I was a bit amazed when I soon found out that Rick Nelson is the singer and song’s composer. And that it dates back to 1972. Rick released the album Garden Party that year and had a monster hit with its title song. Nightime Lady is track number seven on that disc.

Well, I take Nighttime Lady as the tale of an immensely lonely man who finds comfort with and feels a mighty attachment to a lady of the night. Probably he has been with her on many an occasion. Lost when it comes to meeting true love, he’ll take whatever soothing caresses he can, wherever he may find them. I assume that Rick didn’t base Nightime Lady on personal experience. He always seemed well-adjusted to me, handling teen idol status in the 1950s calmly and politely. Then he plowed past those years to establish a long and successful career as a musician. Sadly, all came to an end when he died in a plane crash on the final day of 1985.

I was staring at the sky from my house’s deck when No Question grabbed me by my privates. Man, what a snarling rocker. It, and the album on which it appears (Out In The Storm), were released last month. I was panting for breath when the song ended because it doesn’t take much snarling before my head starts bopping to and fro uncontrollably. And oh happy day, WXPN wasn’t finished with me, as Dry, which came out in April on the album titled XXII, set me bouncing in my chair minutes later. Dry’s take-me-to-the-disco beats beckoned me to jump up and glide all over the deck à la Michael Jackson. I started to do exactly that, but then I remembered that my dancing ability is buried in the negative numbers. I stayed seated, though continuing to bounce in place.

No Question and Dry look at love from very different perspectives than does Nightime Lady. No Question’s young protagonist rages against her (former?) unfaithful lover. And in Dry we hear the thoughts of a guy who is ready to stay with and please his girl forever . . . or is he? He doesn’t seem all that certain, actually. Sure, everyone knows this, but I’ll state it anyway: If it weren’t for love — its solidity or lack thereof, its absence, its frustrations —  hardly any songs ever would have been composed. Topic number one it is and has been, by far.

So, what’s up with the name Waxahatchee? It’s the stage and recording moniker that Katie Crutchfield, who sings lead and wrote every song on Out In The Storm, goes by. She took it from a creek, the Waxahatchee, in Alabama, the state she grew up in. Katie, who now lives in Philadelphia, has become big in the indie rock world over the last two or three years. And probably is going to get even bigger.

Big is a word that Zeek Burse, another Philadelphian, probably hopes one day will apply to him. Stranger things have happened. He sings great, and that’s a big start. And he can write, having composed or co-authored every track on XXII. Still, the music biz is rougher than rough. For now, Zeek remains one of who knows how many thousands of professional musicians that virtually nobody ever has heard of.

Before I say goodbye till next time, I’d be impossibly remiss not to mention a main reason I wrote this article. You see, when it comes to music, we live in storied times. The number of ear-pleasers out there is beyond incredible. Nightime Lady, No Question and Dry represent merely a nano-percentage of the millions of good songs I’d never heard before that I could have chosen. And that’s because nearly everything that ever has been recorded is available to us in our Spotify-edly and YouTube-edly blessed age. Musical riches that only a handful of years ago were unimaginable are now a click here and a click there away.

Party on, amigos!

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