Philadelphia To The Rescue

Two Saturday mornings ago I was in the kitchen of my suburban Philadelphia home, contemplating the whys and wherefores of the universe. My wife Sandy was fastened to the living room sofa, absentmindedly wandering around the web on our laptop computer. If somebody had painted our portraits that morning they could have done worse than to title each canvas Inertia. Now, inertia is a weirdly compelling phenomenon. I’m quite familiar with and knowledgeable about it, as I spend half my waking hours within its grasp. If I were able to bottle it I think I’d become crazily wealthy. I mean, people once spent millions upon millions of dollars on pet rocks, didn’t they?

Luckily for us, our great pal Gene dialed our number around 11:00 AM. Sandy picked up the phone and spoke with him for a few minutes. After hanging up she told me what Gene had to say.

“Gene and Cindy [his wife] went to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday. He says it’s very good. He recommends that we go.”

“Yo!” I exclaimed, just like most Philadelphia aficionados are prone to do. “Gene has the right idea. Let’s go into Philly to check out that show and then we’ll see where the city’s polluted winds carry us after that.”

Two hours later we closed our eyes, clicked our heels three times and thought magical thoughts. That formula always works. Within seconds we were at 18th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia’s central section. We crossed the street and walked into Rittenhouse Square, a gorgeous one-square block park that dates back to the late 1600s. From what I’ve read, in those days and for many ensuing years the park wasn’t looking all that good. In the early 1900s it was redesigned and infused with trees and shrubs in a pretty extraordinary manner, bringing it up to the high standards set by parks in Paris and other European cities.

Neither Sandy nor I had been to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in at least 20 years. It’s an annual affair that began in 1928, making the most recent event the 90th consecutive one. That’s staying power. The show used to be an open-air display. That’s why I was surprised to see that most of the paintings and sculptures were under cover, housed within 143 tent-like booths ringing the perimeter of the park. Don’t know in what year the show’s organizers brought in the tents, but it was good thinking on their part. Now the show can go on even if it rains.

One hundred and forty-three booths holding the works of professional artists? Holy crap, that’s a big amount. And the total doesn’t include the 18 booths in the center of the park that were devoted to the output of student artists. Sandy and I looked at nearly every single booth’s contents, I think, though at the time I’d have guessed that I’d encountered maybe 60 or 70 booths. It was a couple of days later, when reading the show’s brochure, that I learned the true numbers at the park.

Well, what can I say? I’m an art lover, but in trying to catch a glimpse of everything I didn’t act like one, doing little more than to throw a glance at most of the offerings. I made super-quick judgments, deciding in a flash whether or not an artist’s oeuvre was worth my spending a bit of time with, and coming to the madly incorrect conclusion that most weren’t. That’s not the way I behave in museums, where I linger in front of and analyze the works. Oh well, clicking my heels must have set my limited-attention-span mechanism afire. Or perhaps I was just being my usual half-crazed self.

Still, now and then I did stop to smell the roses. For instance, I liked the stylish, black and white, Art Deco-ish drawings by Anastasia Alexandrin a lot. And the same went for the madcap animal sculptures by Scott Causey. And also for John Pompeo’s sturdy, excellently-balanced paintings of landscapes and barns.

Anastasia Alexandrin and her artworks
Scott Causey’s sculptures
John Pompeo and his paintings

And what I liked as much as or more than all the art works was the park itself. It felt great to be among trees and shrubbery and lawn areas exploding in myriad shades of green. And to walk the wide pathways of an elegantly symmetrical park that hordes of Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors love to be in. Rittenhouse Square is a winner, one of the city’s brightest spots.

The day wasn’t over. After taking a pause that refreshed, Sandy and I decided to make our way to West Philadelphia, an enormous swath of Philadelphia’s territory, where, in the area known as University City, the second annual West Philly Porchfest was in full swing. Porchfest is an idea that was born 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York. Since then it has turned into reality in quite a few towns and cities in the States and in a handful of locations outside the USA. I wrote about last year’s West Philly Porchfest, and you can read the article by clicking right here.

To hold a Porchfest, you need a lot of porches. And in University City porches reign. It was on those structures that musicians gathered to fill the air with song. I’d estimate that around 150 acts hit the stages (i.e., porches) throughout the day two Saturdays ago. I kind of fizzled at the art show, but I got my act together at Porchfest and let the vibes enter me in an intelligent manner.

Mountain music jam session
Ditto

Between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, Sandy and I wandered around, program schedules in our hands. We checked out eight or so acts. The quality of the music was hit or miss. What we ended up liking the best was a mountain music jam session taking place on a quiet, leafy block of Walton Avenue. Fifty or so folks were soaking in the sweet sounds on the sidewalks and in the street. Most musicians at Porchfest, which presents many genres of music, amplified their instruments. But the mountain music jammers didn’t. No matter at all. I crept nice and close to the porch and got swept away by the sometimes gritty, sometimes aching and lonesome notes spilling from the musicians’ mouths and instruments. They were as casual and unassuming a group of performers as ever you’ll see, no different than the players strumming, picking and singing at their homes in mountain hollows in the southern states where this soulful, addictive music was born many years ago. I thought that Cameron DeWhitt killed on the banjo, that Jordan Rast fiddled like a demon, in a good sense, and that Peter Oswald set a firm footing with his cello work (Yep, a cello. It’s not the typical mountain music instrument, but at Porchfest it fit in just fine). Applause, applause.

Audience at mountain music jam session

Come 6:00 PM, Sandy and I were getting hungry. Our dinner in a West Philadelphia hot spot (Dock Street Brewery) was good. But, as my mind is starting to wander and your eyes probably are getting tired from reading this story, I’ll skip the dinner write-up. I’d bid you all adieu right now had I not one more thing to add. Namely, at the train station in West Philadelphia where we boarded a choo-choo that took us back to the burbs, we were taken by a view of central Philadelphia, some of its tall towers beautifully aglow. The picture was too pretty a one not to snap. Snap it I did:

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(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

Bruce Springsteen Made Me An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Source: Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America

I’d always heard that, off-stage, Bruce Springsteen is a very normal sort of person. Meaning that the uninhibited, propulsive sides of his personality are reserved for those many moments when he stands beneath spotlights. Yes, everybody knows that in concert he rocks and rolls like few mortals ever have, sweating up storms of great magnitude while giving it all he has. And now I can attest to the truth of this paragraph’s first sentence too, because last week I met The Boss. At my house, no less. He’s a good guy. As is his buddy Steven Van Zandt, a guitar slinger who has been a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band for many years. I didn’t know that they were planning to visit me. I’d have put on something more flattering than a Donald Duck tee shirt and a pair of candy-striped shorts if I had. Whatever, as they say. The main thing is that it’s a good thing I was home when they knocked on my suburban Philadelphia front door yesterday afternoon.

“Hey, Neil, surprise!” said Stevie when I opened the door. “You’re not the best looking guy I’ve ever seen, but you’re nowhere near as ugly as I was expecting. Bruce and I drove all the way from northern New Jersey to meet you. We’re glad to be here. Nice shorts, by the way.”

“Holy crap!” I said. “Stevie? Bruce? What the hell’s going on? Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?”

“Hi, Neil,” said Bruce, peeking out from behind his friend. “Believe it or not, we’re here on serious business. Well, maybe not all that serious. We’ll explain all. C’mon, man, can we come in? I’ve got to use your bathroom. Half an hour ago I emptied a two liter bottle of RC Cola in no time flat. Big mistake. My bladder is sending out an SOS.”

“Gentlemen, enter!” I said, bowing and sweeping my right hand in a dramatic, welcoming arc. Enter they did, Bruce quickly spotting the ground floor john and heading towards it pronto. Stevie and I shook hands and took seats in the living room. I stared at him in disbelief. He smiled that smile of his that’s wide as a canyon.

“Stevie, what do you want to drink?” I finally managed to ask.

“Got any seltzer? Bruce I’m sure would love some, too.”

“I’ve got gallons of it. I’ll be right back.”

Two minutes later I strode into the living room with a big tray that held glasses of fizzy water and bowls of pretzels and chips. I looked at Bruce, who had finished his business and taken a seat on the sofa, and at Stevie. We lifted the glasses to our lips and reached into the bowls.

“Guys,” I said, “nothing like this has ever happened to me. Woody Allen is the only star I ever met before. That was in 1973 when I was living in Manhattan. I accidentally knocked him over with a shopping cart in a Gristedes supermarket when I made a U- turn in the cereal aisle. He got up from the floor, glared at me and kept on shopping. Never said a word. More importantly, he didn’t sue.”

“Yeah, Woody’s the forgiving kind, so that doesn’t surprise me,” said Stevie. “Anyway, here’s why we’ve paid you a visit. It’s because of that story you wrote last week about your weakening obsession with music [click here to read it]. It found its way to one of the Springsteen-fan websites.” Bruce nodded in agreement. “And Brucie boy, having nothing better to do, checked out that site the other day. Your story jumped out at him like a wild animal. After reading it he knew that he had to take some action to try and help you out. So, he called me, told me what your article was about and explained everything he had in mind. I was on board just like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point. “Ergo, here we are. And don’t bother asking how we found out where you live. It’s a Google world, my man. The only person that nobody can find hasn’t been born yet.”

“Stevie, Bruce, I’m humbled. Please continue.”

“Neil, we’re all about the same age here. Not getting any younger, that’s for sure,” Bruce said. “But Stevie and I are having the times of our lives. Just like always. We haven’t gotten tired of rock and roll in the least. Man, the passion, the fire are still there. It broke my heart when I read in your article that you’re only one-fifth the music guy that you used to be. Neil, we have come to get you out of what I am convinced is a funk. We want to turn you back into the rock and roll animal that you once were. And you know how we’re going to do that? Hold onto the few strands of hair that you have left on your wrinkly head . . . Neil, we want you to become part of The E Street Band! You’ll have more excitement than you ever thought possible. You’ll travel all over the world. You’ll drown, like me and Stevie and the rest of the band, in audience applause. Man, you’re going to have the time of your life.”

Photo: Don Marshall

I swear, my jaw dropped through the living room floor and into the basement. Whose wouldn’t have? Quickly I pulled it back into place, slapped myself in the face and said, “Bruce, this is an offer only a fool would refuse. My life has been good till now, but I wouldn’t mind it becoming great. Only problem is, I’m unfit to be in your band. You guys are the best. Me, I can’t stay on pitch when I sing. And I have less talent on musical instruments than the average three year old.”

“Doesn’t matter, Neil,” said The Boss. “We’ll teach you to sing simple background harmonies. You’ll sound just fine. And as far as instruments go, I want you to play the triangle. Anybody can play the triangle. And on a few tunes maybe we’ll have you bang on some wood blocks. Some of my songs would be strengthened with some incisive wood block poundings, don’t you think, Stevie?” Steven gave the thumbs-up sign emphatically. “Thunder Road, for instance, and Born In The U.S.A. You will be able to handle this, Neil. I’m totally confident.”

At that moment Sandy, my wife, turned her key in the front door lock and entered our house. She had been out shopping for some Matisse-inspired toilet seat covers. Sadly, none were to be found. Bruce and Steven rose, fine gentlemen that they are, when she came into the living room. Not unexpectedly, her jaw dropped not only into the basement but through the basement floor itself.

Well, Bruce and Steven hung around Sandy’s and my house for a few more hours. We all got on famously. Like I said, they are good guys. Very good guys. Bruce and the band are taking a break from the road right now, but plans for the next round are in the works. Rehearsals and touring start early next year. Sandy will fly to be with me now and then, like when the band is in London and Amsterdam and Stockholm. I’m psyched about what’s ahead.

This is the damndest thing, isn’t it? Me, a schlub who gets yanked from behind a computer keyboard to become a cog in one of the most popular bands in the universe. You know, I’m awake, but pinch me anyway. I won’t mind in the least.

 

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My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

A Wobbly Stroll

We all have those days, at least I do, when a wobbly stroll from one place to another is the best we can do. This is one of those days. Here then is a story formed from the tentative searchings of an unfocused mind, a tale that will touch upon technological miracles and upon lovely songs chosen almost at random, all partially obscured by the haze of cigarette smoke. Yes, it’s that kind of a story. I’m interested, myself, to see how it comes out.

To begin, awkwardly: My understanding of how most things work is at the sub-kindergarten level. Combustion engines? I have nary a clue. Harnessed electricity, which, it seems to me, is the driving force behind the modern world? Ditto. Radio and television and Internet transmissions that fly invisibly through the air or through cables and manifest themselves on billions of devices in the homes, businesses and hands of mankind? Ditto once again.

And, in my experience, I’m hardly alone in that lack of knowledge. Practically everybody, I’d guess, is more or less like me in that way. When we hit the power button on the TV or ask Siri a question or turn the key to start the car, we expect our machines to behave properly. And almost always they do. How they do what they do is something we rarely delve into. And that’s okay. Our brains are overloaded as it is.

Needless to say, therefore, I take my iPhone for granted, though it is nothing short of miraculous. Somehow I was living in the dark ages till a year and a half ago, which is when the iPhone entered my life. I could live without it, and pretty easily I believe, but hell, I wouldn’t want to. I love the frigging thing.

Part of its attraction to me, beyond its amazing capabilities, is that it’s about the same size as, and reminds me of, a pack of cigarettes. Man, did I love my cigarettes in my sinning days decades ago, the gratifying and comforting feelings I got from rolling around lit cigarettes in the fingers of my right hand, from casually knocking off the ashes and from sucking hardcore smoke deep into my lungs. But I loved the packs themselves almost as much as their contents. I’d feel fine whenever I pulled a pack of Winstons, my brand, from my shirt or jacket pocket, tapping it just so to force out the tip of my next cig. Holding the iPhone gently, practically caressing it, which I do, brings me back to those glory days.

More importantly, I find my way around the iPhone pretty decently. I’m not boasting, by the way. I’m fully aware that it was designed and programmed with nitwits like me in mind. Texting, telephoning, surfing the web, snapping photos and checking out tunes via Shazam . . . who’d believe that a five ounce contraption could handle all of that and far more? Incroyable, n’est-ce pas?

“What’s Shazam?” I heard someone in the corner table ask. Oh, it’s you, is it? Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to talk with food in your mouth? I’m going to wait till you swallow that load. Okay, that’s better. What’s Shazam? It’s the music-identifying app that gives you the answers within seconds when, to avoid plotzing like a whimpering fool, you have to know right away  the name of the song you’re listening to and/or who is singing it. Hold your Shazam-equipped smart phone in the vicinity of the speakers from which the number is pouring out and voila! — all the details will be revealed on the phone’s screen. As long as, that is, the same recording is stored within Shazam’s database. Otherwise, identification is impossible. There are millions of recordings in there, though, so disappointment isn’t frequent.

Ah yes, Shazam. I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of writing something or other about that bad boy, so taken am I with it. But, in my current wobbly frame of mind I’ll postpone any extensive examination of Shazam’s place in the world. Instead I’ll pursue a flimsy connection that I noticed when relentlessly scrolling up and down the list that the app maintains of my Shazamming history. What eventually jumped out at me was that many songs on the list contained one-word titles. Efficiency aficionado that I am, that aspect appealed to me. What’s more, three of the one-word-titled tunes began with the letter S. I was sold. That’s all I needed to proceed. Sure, the three songs have nothing much in common. What’s more, they amount to a nearly random selection. But what the hell? Randomness can add plenty of spice to life. Anyway, the songs are good, very good. Which, connection-wise, is more than enough.

Sleep. Steamboat. Stewball. Those are the songs, in alphabetical order. Their performers are, respectively: Azure Ray, a female duo (Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink) whose music is well-known in certain ambiant and indie pop music circles, though the lasses spend more time on hiatus than they do recording or touring together; The Drifters, rhythm and blues titans whose history of personnel changes during their golden era (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) is dizzying enough to send you to bed with a bad case of the jitters; and Eric von Schmidt, who was a medium-sized name in American folk music during the 1960s and 70s.

I’ve listened to Sleep three times on YouTube since deciding to jot down a few thoughts about it. The song is the first track on Azure Ray’s debut album, which Maria and Orenda presented to humanity in 2010. I’m in tune with the tune. I like its contrasts. Though it’s vocals are dreamy and gauzy, the incessant keyboard chords that initiate and anchor the song give little mercy. Those chords, to me, represent an agitated psyche. The Azure Ray girls are in the midst of love troubles. They can’t sleep.

Dreamy and gauzy are words that don’t apply in any manner to Steamboat. It’s a punchy, bluesy gas, powered by hard-hitting drumming and très cool boogie-woogie piano work. The vocals, lead (Bill Pinkney) and background, are superbly jaunty. The Drifters’ original and famous lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, had left the band a few months before Steamboat was put on wax in 1955, and Ben E. King, another leading star, wouldn’t arrive for a few more years. Hardly matters. Steamboat rocks like a motherf***er.

As for Stewball, well, it’s a song with a highly complicated history. I read the Wikipedia entries about it and came away way more confused than I like to be. The song, it seems, has its origins in 1700s England and has evolved over time, spawning various, differing versions. A lot of folks, including Lead Belly and The Hollies, have recorded one version or another. I think that Eric von Schmidt’s take is awfully fine. At first the song appears to be about Stewball, a talented racehorse. But the final set of lyrics turn everything around, leaving me with the impression that the song’s narrator is using Stewball in a metaphorical sense. What he really is singing about is his regret for the life that he has thrown away.

There we have it, folks. Three wildly different songs that prove, as if we needed proof, that we live in a musical wonderland. Tens of millions of tracks have been laid down in the past 100 or so years. A large percentage of them are out there in cyberspace at our beck and call. It’s a delicious situation to be in.

My wobbly stroll has concluded. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece.

Last Night When I Was Not So Young

The other day, while driving around the burbs, I heard a recording of a song on the radio that took me aback. It’s a number I’ve listened to many times in my life. Sinatra sang it (click here). Judy Garland sang it (click here). Hell, it’s likely that Bob Dylan, who has been recording nothing but standards over the last few years, will get to it before too long.

Photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images.

The song was Last Night When We Were Young. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the guys who are most famous for composing the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, wrote Last Night in 1935. Harold, as always, handled the music and Yip the words. The song is a beauty. Its melody is wistful. Its lyrics, direct and simple, are also profound. And the version I heard the other day, by Tony Bennett, seemed so right. Tony was singing softly, unusually softly for someone who rarely has shied away from issuing scads of notes with lungfuls of oomph. Discretely backed by only three instruments – piano, upright bass and drums – he took his time analyzing the lyrics, hitting, I thought, his contemplation buttons precisely. Naturally, that put me in a contemplative mood.

Last Night contains a mere 96 words, but if a set of lyrics ever encapsulated a bittersweet view of the human condition more movingly, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. Take a look at the tune’s first two verses:

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung.
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night.

Today the world is old.
You flew away and time grew cold.
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

I mean, wow. Talk about poetic. Talk about graceful. Talk about powerful. Yip Harburg was tapped into the higher frequencies of the ethers when Last Night’s images came to him. Here’s a song that speaks of love’s precariousness, of its sometimes fragility. But what actually has happened? Has the narrator and his/her mate argued violently, unexpectedly? Or has the mate, feeling inadequate upon discovering that there is much more to love than he/she ever understood, bailed out of the relationship? Ah, it’s a mystery. Any number of scenarios might be devised to fit the verses. That’s the genius of Last Night’s words.

But you know what? When, a few days later, I decided to write a piece about Last Night, I listened at home a couple of more times to Tony Bennett’s recording. And I saw that I had been mistaken in my assessment of his approach. Most singers fall into melancholy mode when singing this song, and in my car that’s what I thought Tony had done. It must have been his hushed vocals that threw me off.

Tony, I realized, came at the tune from a different angle, a slyly jaunty one. He sang with the glint of a twinkle in his voice. And that’s when, for a minute, I thought that he was doing the song a big injustice, missing its talking points, missing the pain and suffering embued in its stark and elegant phrases.

And then I woke up. Not from a dream but from a frozen mindset. Yo, Tony was delivering a message when he chose to sing Last Night in the way that he did. “Sure, love can be a rocky road,” I think he was telling his audience. “Sure, love can fade away. But you know what? It ain’t the end of the world. Things will get better. Probably. Very probably.”

Now, you might be asking why in the world I’m going on and on about a Tony Bennett recording. I don’t always have my reasons for what I do, but in this instance I do. So, here’s why:

I’ve had long talks recently with two of my greatest pals, Mike and Dave. I’ve known each of them since childhood, which for us took place not long after William The Conqueror invaded England. Mike and Dave make me look like a slacker, which isn’t hard for just about anybody to do, to be honest. Working long hours in demanding professions, they set a remarkable pace.

I’m not sure at what point Dave’s and my conversation turned to the undeniable fact that, if we remain above ground for the next handful of months, we’ll have completed 70 cycles around our friend the Sun. “Neil,” Dave said,”we’re old men.”

Huh? Me, old? Speak for yourself, Dave. I know for certain that beautiful girls still steal glances at me when I pass them on the street. Some might say that they’re eyeing my luxuriant nostril hairs, but I know better.

But maybe Dave put a notion, or some sense, into my head. Because two weeks later when speaking with Mike, who recently passed the 70-cycle mark, I said something or other like: “Mike, you know, we’re getting old.” To which he sighed in agreement and said: “Yeah. But what can we do about it?”

“Not much,” I responded. “All we can do is grin and bear it.”

Tony Bennett, a wise individual, I’m certain would have wagged his finger at me if he’d heard what I said to Mike. “Neil, you’ve got to do more than grin and bear it,” I can hear Tony, who is 90 years old and going very strong, telling me. “I was 66, not much younger than you are today, when I recorded the version of Last Night When We Were Young that you’re doing an incredibly so-so job of turning into a story. Putting that last comment aside, let me say this: Life is here for fortunate ones like us to embrace. Doesn’t matter that we’re not as young as we once were. Grin and bear it? Come on . . . you can do better than that. Put a meaningful smile on your face, not just a reluctant grin. Help others and don’t wallow in disappointments. Spread some joy . . . that’s the way to have a good life.”

Thanks, Tony. I needed that. Believe me, I can dig it.

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Up, Up And Away (High As A Kite On Music)

As I barrel down the highway that before year’s end will bring me to the road marker labeled The Big 7-0, assuming that I don’t kick off before then, I mean it when I say that I consider myself a fortunate guy. I’ve got a couple of biggies to worry about — who doesn’t? But for the most part I’m rolling along pretty nicely, doing most of the sorts of things that gave me a bang years ago, and still getting a bang from them. Such as palling around with my wife Sandy and with other pals; poking around in the great outdoors and in cities that have zing and depth; downing good foods and beers in taverns and restaurants.

And listening to music, which I’ve left for last to give it the space it deserves. And that’s because music sometimes takes me to realms — excellent realms — that otherwise I wouldn’t be setting foot in. Music, like nothing else, can get me high as a kite. Well, pot can get me high as a kite too, but I haven’t smoked any in, what? . . . 30 years? It’s a habit I dropped that maybe, to tell you the truth, I’d be interested in picking up again. But that’s another story.

It’s not as if listening to music always is a transporting experience for me, though. At home I usually am struggling with a Sudoku puzzle or thrashing through the Web as tunes play on the stereo, so the musical vibes sink in only partially. And in the car I make a modest effort to keep my eyes on the road, even if a great song is trying to liberate me.

Nor does music always lift me to the skies at concerts. A week and a half ago, for example, Sandy and I went with friends to see Peter Mulvey, a solid singer-songwriter who put his palette of emotions on display in a small space in Philadelphia. I dug him, but I remained Earthbound. Here’s why:

Volume. I need a lot of volume for liftoff to occur, and the Mulvey concert, consisting of  Peter and his acoustic guitar, was merely in the middle of the decibel scale. And, usually, there’s got to be strong drumming. And, usually, long and soaring solos from an electric guitar, though their counterparts from a piano or saxophone also might do the trick.

Hallelujah! High volume, crashing drum strokes and gorgeous guitar work soon came my way, because Sandy and I headed to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 15 hours after the conclusion of the Mulvey show. There, in an arts center built on the grounds of the defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation, day three of the three-day Blast Furnace Blues Festival was marching on. We stayed for five hours, catching three acts and gazing at the rusting Bethlehem blast furnaces through the music room’s huge windows, before taking to the roads once again.

The Lee Boys, Victor Wainwright, Ana Popovic . . . I wasn’t familiar with any of them before arriving in Bethlehem. If you like rip-roaring music, then these guys probably are for you. They all bring the noise, and then some, with skill and soul. And they all tour a lot, so they might show up in your corner of the world.

None of the acts plays straight-blues-all-the-way by any means, though their underpinnings are heavily molded from the blues. The Lee Boys mostly serve up gospel tunes, though you might have a hard time recognizing them as such, heavily wrapped in funky R&B drapery as they are. Victor Wainwright is a sweet-toned shouter who can put a little gravel in his voice, a suspendered showman who loves feeling close to his audience almost as much as he loves to pound out red hot boogie woogie licks on his keyboard. And Ana Popovic is, at heart, a rock and roller. She sings well, but it’s her string work that you go to see her for — she’s an electric guitar goddess.

Sandy and I took seats 25 feet from the stage. The place was mobbed. The audience was pumped. And when The Lee Boys, the first group we saw that day, tore into their opening number I tipped my hat to the guy twisting and sliding the sound board’s dials. He had the music pouring out loud, really loud, but not so utterly powerfully that my ears ever felt like they were in danger. I was bopping with the beats, pounding the heel of my left foot up and down like a piston. And then the magic carpet rides began when Roosevelt Collier slid into the first of his lengthy, involved pedal steel guitar solos. Dreamy at times, growling at others, stuttering and whooshing, his electric journey rushed inside me. Closing my eyes I became lost in the sounds, bouncing my head back and forth gently, uncontrollably, as they swept me along, swept me upward, seduced me. When his solos reached their ends in each Lee Boys tune, it took me a few moments to decompress.

I’m not sure why the same didn’t happen during Victor’s set. He and his band were on fire, and Pat Harrington, the electric guitarist, tore into his instrument like a demon. But for reasons unknown, my eyes remained open throughout the wild ride. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t groove madly. I did, but I didn’t levitate.

But I floated and communed once again when Ana and her gang took the stage. Ana’s electric guitar solos saw to that. This girl can play. Pulling on the guitar strings almost maniacally, she had them snarling, moaning, pleading, testifying. Ana took me to regions even loftier than those where Roosevelt Collier had wafted me. Amen.

Yeah, music can be a temporary cure for what ails us. Me, I love rising into the clouds, feeling gravity and neuroses slip away. Whenever it happens I’m grateful. And amazed that my body is able to latch onto and meld with invisible good vibrations. One of these days maybe I’ll figure out how to transfer some of what I feel when afloat into my regular daily regimen. Whatever, this I do believe: Get your kicks while you can, kids, because you never know when the final curtain will descend.

Here now are videos from the Blast Furnace Blues Festival:

 

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

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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.)

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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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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