An Evening On The Deck In The Burbs

Photo taken on July 9, 2019 at 8:26 PM, five minutes before the Sun set.

On Tuesday evening of last week a simple notion swam into my mind. When it made its presence felt I immediately became comfortable with it. And minutes later I answered its call. To wit, I gathered together a bottle of beer, a glass mug, a bottle opener, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a portable radio. Then I opened one of the two doors that lead to the deck attached to the rear of my house and stepped onto that planked structure with the just-mentioned items in hand. Atop the outdoor table I placed them. And upon one of the chairs surrounding the table I deposited my bony, lazy ass. I like the deck a lot, but for reasons associated with a mild-to-medium case of stupidity I don’t relax on it as often as I should. Tuesday evening of last week was only the second or third time I took advantage of the deck since outdoor-sitting weather arrived in April.

The trees on my lot and on surrounding properties have grown madly since my wife Sandy and I took ownership of our suburban-Philadelphia home in 2005. Back then you could see the Sun dip below the horizon from the deck, because our wooden friends were of manageable size. But that was then and now is now. On the night in question I stepped outside at 8:20 PM, eleven minutes before the big ball of fire was scheduled to bid adieu to the Philadelphia region. Not only did trees block out the horizon and the Sun from my perch, they did the same to much of the sky. Ergo, there wasn’t a whole lot of sunset to be seen.

But I didn’t let those realities bother me, as I was in a relaxed mood, a mood that inched closer to the “highly contented” end of the spectrum during the hour and 40 minutes I spent on the deck. And why not? That’s what drinking beer, munching on Cheez-Its and listening to music on the radio will do to you. As will nonchalantly paying a decent amount of attention to what’s going on around you as the sky gradually makes its way from plenty bright to awfully dark. The bottom line is that, after a while, I found myself lost in the evening’s slow flow, a gentle state of affairs the likes of which happen to me only every now and then.

8:48 PM
8:56 PM

Fifteen minutes or so after sunset I admired the pale pink and purple hues in the western part of the sky not obscured by leafy branches or by houses, including mine. And I took note of birds chirping and of insects’ buzzes and clicks. The insects continued to harmonize once dusk began to take hold, but the birds stopped their chatter at that point and hit the sack. And it was impossible not to steal glances at the Moon, which was a few rungs above eye level in the southern sky. It glowed proudly in the clear heavens both before and after darkness arrived, and noticeably moved westward during my stay outside.

Motorcycle roars, somewhere in the distance, filled the air on several occasions while I sat. Central air conditioner systems hummed in unison. I heard the tooting of a train passing through my little town, and the sirens of two or more police vehicles. You know, the man-made sounds seemed as natural as those of the birds and insects, even the jarring ones that usually bug the hell out of me. Yeah man, I was in a mellow groove.

9:28 PM

Music kept me company mighty finely, as I’d known it would. I heard 20 songs or thereabouts on the radio, and they all fit snugly into the evening. One of them especially pleased me, partly because it came over the airwaves (via WRDV, a station in a town close to mine) when darkness was comfortably settling in. That’s the time of day when dreaminess becomes part of the picture.

I’d never heard of Theola Kilgore (born 1925, died 2005) before. I don’t know why, because she had a strong career in the soul and gospel music worlds. Nor had I heard her recording or any other recording of This Is My Prayer, which came out in 1963 and is such a good love song. The late Ed Townsend, a singer and songwriter who fully penned “For Your Love” and co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, composed Prayer. I sighed happily when Theola began to sing. I knew that I was in good hands. Her pleading, honest vocals can shake you to your knees.

At about the time that Theola Kilgore was entering my heart, a quarter past nine o’clock, I couldn’t help but notice that fireflies were starting to kick their show into high gear. Tiny lights flashed to my left, to my right, in front of me, everywhere. The performance was wonderful, and was the main focus of my attention until I headed back into the house at ten after ten.

Is it possible to photograph fireflies? With high-end cameras in the hands of knowledgeable photographers I have no doubt that it is. But with an iPhone in the hands of an amateur? Well, I tried, snapping shot after shot, hoping that one or two little light bursts would appear at the moment that my finger pressed the camera button. I’m not going to bet my life on it, but I believe that one of my attempts might have paid off. It’s hard to say, of course, whether those pinpricks are from fireflies or are artificial lighting, peeking through dense foliage, from a house behind mine. But I’ve got my money on the former. Here’s the photo. The dots are firefly lights, right? Right?

Fireflies? (Photo taken at 9:47 PM)

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

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

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The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

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

Let’s Dance! (A Story In Waltz Time)

One night in the foggy past, circa 1983 I suppose, I was at the Cherry Tree Music Co-op, a long-deceased and seriously-missed folk music venue in Philadelphia. A Cherry Tree devotee, I took in at least 150 shows there. Anyway, on the night in question the band that commanded the stage played a song that has stayed with me all these years. I have no recollection of who the band was. But the song? It was Waltz Across Texas, which I’d never heard before. It is as sweet and pure a number as you ever will encounter.

I recall that the band’s lead singer mentioned that Waltz Across Texas is a tune by Ernest Tubb (1914-1984), a country music legend. And indeed his fans craved his version of it. However, as I discovered on the day that I began to compose this essay, the song was written not by Ernest but by his nephew Talmadge Tubb, a country music semi-obscurity. Hell, Talmadge Tubb deserves to be as famous as Ernest on the basis of this one song alone.

When we dance together my world’s in disguise, it’s a fairyland tale that’s come true.
And when you look at me with those stars in your eyes,
I could waltz across Texas with you.
Waltz across Texas with you in my arms, waltz across Texas with you.
Like a storybook ending I’m lost in your charms,
And I could waltz across Texas with you.

Ah, beautiful. And let’s add some music to the fine words. Here’s Ernest Tubb performing the song:

Now, I like music that rocks and roars. But I also enjoy the slow and uncomplicated, such as Waltz Across Texas. And ever since that fateful Cherry Tree evening I’ve held a soft spot in my heart for songs written in waltz time, of which Waltz Across Texas, almost needless to say, is an example. Waltz time’s one-two-three, one-two-three rhythmic pattern seems to perfectly mesh with my emotional makeup. When I hear a worthy waltz-time number, such as Bob Dylan’s Winterlude or the Eagles’ Take It To The Limit, I start to soften and melt . . . and then I dreamily drift within a higher realm.

All of which leads us to the morning of February 23, 2019, a Saturday. The living room radio was tuned to WXPN, a Philadelphia station that I’ve mentioned so many times on these pages, its general manager should make me an honorary DJ. I was communing with the living room sofa when my ears perked up at about 9:45, caught by a soft, alluring song issuing through the speakers. One-two-three, one-two-three it flowed. The repetitiveness of the beat induced that softening, melting and drifting syndrome. The song was Johnny’s Blues, written and recorded by little-known Denny Brown in 2008. A pared-down look at insecurity, at the difficulty so many people have in feeling at home with themselves and with the world, Johnny’s Blues is a country waltz lifted, as many country waltzes are, by fiddle playing that bores deep into your heart.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t get Johnny’s Blues out of my head. And it became the spark for the story that you now are reading. Yeah, for a long time I’d had it in mind, amorphously, to write something or other about pop music waltzes. At last the story began to become clearer to me. And the story’s biggest point emerged after dinner on the following day.

Truer words never were written than these: I can’t dance worth a shit. Man, I sucked at dancing even when I was fairly nimble and agile. But nimble and agile are not words that have applied to me, a septuagenarian, for the last 10 years. Awkward as a motherf*cker is more like it. Yet there I was, following dinner on Sunday the 24th, waltzing around the living room with my wife Sandy, in search of story-writing inspiration. We glided to the accompaniment of Johnny’s Blues, courtesy of YouTube.

We didn’t set the world on fire with our performance, but we weren’t bad. That’s one of the beauties of waltzes: Even an oaf like me can move to a waltz pretty well, since it doesn’t require any amazing techniques. All you have to do is become one with the music, hold onto your partner, and ease yourself from here to there to there.

It was fun. We got into it. Hey, we hadn’t danced in years, so we were overdue. And you know what? I believe that we’re going to dance again, occasionally, in our living room. To songs in waltz time more likely than not. Dancing, I realized, is very freeing. It’s a natural thing to do. But I ain’t about to enroll in a dance class to learn, after all these years, how to shake my boney booty to hip-hop or swing music. I’m too inhibited for that. Nor shall I invade a local mosh pit and become the oldest nitwit ever to jump and spin spasmodically at a punk rock concert. Yo, not only am I inhibited, I’m also fragile! Better that I stick to my living room and to waltzes with Sandy.

At long last you have the opportunity to listen to the song that I’ve been making a fuss about. Perhaps it will inspire you to dance inside your house. Here then is Johnny’s Blues, by Denny Brown. Before I remove my fingers from the keyboard, though, I’ll say what I always seem to say at the ends of my pieces: Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.

Rock On, Old-Timer!

Hey there! This piece is partly a commentary about growing old, a subject and a sad reality that I can’t seem to stop thinking about. And, consequently, writing about. I don’t obsess over it by any means, but as I mentioned in an article a month or two ago, I am very aware of the grains of sand that steadily and relentlessly are falling to the bottom of my hourglass. Man, I’m 71, at least 20 years older than I’d like to be. But hopefully I’ll be around for many more years, hitting the Publish button for scads more stories on this website. And if not, well, c’est la f*cking vie, as they say in Gay Paree.

Doom and gloom, however, will not dominate the present proceedings. Nah, that’s not me. Age-wise, I may be nearing lofty heights. (Nearing? Shit, I’m already there.) At heart, though, I’m still kind of a rabid 20-something.

Which is why I was bouncing like a rabbit on amphetamines a week and a half ago, on the way back home from the supermarket. I was in my trusty, humble, beat-up Honda Civic, model year 2001. This car is well-known in my neighborhood for its pitted paint and for the fabric langorously sagging from the roof’s underside. Hell, I’m pitted and sagging too. Naturally, then, the Honda and I get along real well.

I listen to music a lot when I’m in the car, but it’s pretty rare for my body to react like it did on the short drive home. My hips, my shoulders, my head were jumping around excellently, fueled by the energy coming through the speakers. I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t believe that not one, not two, but three catchy-as-hell, blistering rock tunes in a row accompanied me on the drive. I hadn’t been blasted like that in quite a while. It was good to be reminded that hard, driving rock and roll is hard to beat, and that, old as I am, I love potent rock as much as I ever did.

The music came over 88.5 FM, the frequency of  WXPN, a Philadelphia station. More important, these are the songs that I heard: Feels Alright, a brand new number by the young band The Nude Party; Do Anything You Wanna Do, a classic by Eddie And The Hot Rods that came out in 1977; Silver, from 2017, by the group Waxahatchee. You can listen to them now, if you wish, via YouTube. My epic tale continues below the YouTube offerings.

Yeah, ever since my late teens I’ve been under the power of snarling, soaring electric guitars, throbbing electric basses, and pounding drums. Not that I don’t like the less-wild forms of rock or other styles of music. I do. A lot. In fact, I’m into almost everything, except for rap, opera and Madonna-style pop. And I even get along with those genres at times.

But if I had to pick the one type of music that perfectly meshes with the hidden recesses of my inner self, there would be little contest. It would be vigorous, tuneful, guitar-driven rock. Were I a musician, that’s what I’d be playing. I’d man the electric bass, helping to hold the rest of the band together, and getting my rocks off stratospherically.

Alas, I have zero talent as a musician. Like most of the rest of humanity, I’m a listener, not a player. But there’s a lot to be said for listening when you have the capacity to go higher, higher, higher. What a rush! What a gas!

Why, then, don’t I listen to the recordings of powerful bands (The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Patti Smith Group, etc.) at home as much as I did when I was single? Well, my wife Sandy usually prefers that things be on the calmer side in the house, so that’s the main reason. And yes, I know I could listen through earphones, but I’ve always found them to be uncomfortable.

As for hearing the strong stuff in person, there’s not much of it in the burbs, where I live. Most of it is concentrated in clubs and theaters in The City Of Brotherly Love, an hour’s drive away. It’s tough to find a parking spot near those Philly venues, and the shows start late and aren’t over till after midnight. Which means that I’d arrive back home well into the wee small hours. Thus, when I attend concerts these days (I go to quite a few), they tend to be of non-hard-rock varieties in places within comfortable driving distance of my home.

But you know what? Those excuses in the above paragraph are lame. I know for a fact that a smattering of people in my age bracket go to the music venues that I’ve been avoiding. They’re not embarrassed to shake and groove among music lovers 40 or more years younger than them. And neither am I. That’s why, a few days into our new year, I’m making one resolution: I am going to start visiting some of Philadelphia’s rock meccas now and then. Johnny Brenda’s, Boot And Saddle, and Union Transfer, here I come! It will be fun. It will be soul-satisfying. And I’d better do it while I can, because those frigging grains of sand have no plans to take a break.

(As I always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

Teeth And Gums And Music

“Yo, schmuck! Are you kidding me? You haven’t published a story in quite a while and the best idea that you can come up with now is a piece about dental health? Neil, you test my patience like no other of my writers. If you weren’t overpaying me for attending to your flimsy articles, I’d bounce you from my client list and send you into the deepest reaches of cyberspace, from which you’d never be heard from again!”

Those were the words that my editor, Edgar Reewright, flung at me over the phone three days ago when I told him about the essay I was planning to compose. Shit, I didn’t exactly appreciate his uncivil response. But what could I do? Fire him? No way. I mean, without his expert eye and guidance, my flimsy articles would be even worse: conceptually flawed, grammatically messy, stiff and awkward, etc., etc.

I need Edgar.

You know what though? I’m not going to let him critique this piece. I’ll mail him his weekly check, sure. But if he’s not interested in reading about a topic as important as dental health, he can shove his unreasonableness up his ever-widening ass. That’ll teach him!

My dental implements.

Dental health. For at least six months I’ve been tossing around the notion of writing a story about it. But I couldn’t quite figure out what angle to take, what points to make. Anyway, late night on October 30 I began to see the journalistic light while brushing and flossing, which are parts of the nightly ritual that I maintain to try and keep periodontal disease (which can lead to tooth loss and possibly worse, such as heart disease) and cavities away.

And I received the kick in the butt that I needed to set the story in motion when, on November 6, I read a real good essay about canine dental health (click here) by Cristina Crawford, a fellow blogger. “Hey!” I said to myself. “It’s not coincidental that Cristina’s article came on the heels of the light you saw last week. Sure, she wrote about her dog’s dental situations. But so what? Dental health is dental health, no matter what species is involved. The time is now, fella! Write your story!”

Okay, I shall.

My dental history was unremarkable until the mid-1990s. I’d been to various dentists somewhat regularly over the previous 40+ years and had had numerous cavities filled, but nobody ever had raised anything resembling a red flag. Circa 1995 though, my dentist-at-the-time (she is still my dentist) did. What she told me, basically, was that my gums and teeth were infected to an extent that she was unable to treat, that the gums had regressed significantly, that I’d had bone loss in the middle and lower sections of my teeth, and that I therefore needed the services — pronto! — of a periodontist. My conditions, I surmised, were the results of poor dental hygiene, because for many years I’d definitely not been the poster boy for proper oral care.

To a periodontist I went, and what resulted wasn’t a pretty scene. Osseous surgery sessions — scraping away of infected bone and gum tissue areas, and repositioning of my gums on tooth surfaces — took place over a number of months. The procedures hurt, and they made my mouth look like a bloody, sloppy mess. But everything in time healed. And the procedures worked, putting a halt to periodontal disease, which is fueled by bacterial buildups. Ever since then I’ve very diligently done my best to keep my gums and teeth clean: Brushing after meals with a regular toothbrush; inserting a small brush (a Proxabrush) between the teeth to push out food particles; flossing; and rinsing with mouthwash. I do all of this, in various permutations, several times each day.

There’s nothing unusual about my regimen. Pretty much everyone reading this article, I imagine, is more or less taking the same measures. In any case, I’ve been fortunate, because periodontal disease, knock on wood, has not returned.

So, how does the late night of October 30 figure into this story? Well, dental routines ain’t exactly emotionally or spiritually invigorating, right? To help while away the boredom as I work inside my mouth, I listen to music on an old portable radio.

I’m not the music geek that once I was, but a seeker of fine tunes I remain. In between brush strokes or floss movements I flip the radio’s dial, hoping to connect with one station or another’s offerings. Often I connect pleasantly, sometimes fabulously. On October 30 the latter took place, for three songs that I’m compelled to mention came at me during the first quarter of the eleven o’clock hour. As they played I couldn’t help but bust out my sad attempts at bopping and boogying, being careful of course not to trip and stab myself with my toothbrush as I shuffled around the bathroom.

In the order in which I heard them, the recordings were as follows: The Memphis Train, by Rufus Thomas. St. James Infirmary, by Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Pass The Gin, by The Meadowlarks. The tunes hit the market, respectively, in 1968, 1930 and 1954. Rufus and Cab were big stars in their lifetimes, I should note, and retain plenty of fame to this day. The Meadowlarks, though, were pretty obscure, and are beyond obscure in 2018. But little matter. Millions of top-notch recordings have faded away in music history’s scrapbook. I’m glad that Pass The Gin was resurrected while I had the radio on.

I totally dig The Memphis Train’s pounding drums, funky and kinky electric guitar, and Rufus’s wild whoops. Ditto for Cab’s dramatic singing in St. James Infirmary, and for the horn players who, with twinkles in their eyes, send out cascades of sashaying and strutting notes. As for Pass The Gin, how cool and tight are the vocals, and how nifty is the guitar solo halfway through the song? Very. Very. Very.

With that, the current proceedings are coming to a close. Sleep well tonight, readers. Treat your teeth and gums well, if you’re not already doing so. And, as Sly And The Family Stone advised, dance to the music!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias.)

Aaah, The Early Morning: Coffee, A Puzzle, And A Fine Song

Hello one and all. It is afternoon as I begin to write this story on the fourth day of October of 2018, the year that is rapidly disappearing in our collective rearview mirror. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up! Get your eyes off of that mirror! Even though it ain’t a wonderful thing that our expiration dates are getting closer with each passing second, there’s no point dwelling on that. If it had been up to me, I’ll note nonetheless, the design and nature of the cosmic game we’re parts of would be a whole lot different, a whole lot more user-friendly, than they are. But, par for the course, I wasn’t consulted.

Still, despite my dissatisfaction with how the world and universe turn, there’s one time of day that I am almost always glad to greet: The first hour after I arise at 6:30 AM, when the potential troubles of the day normally haven’t yet reared their f*cking heads, and there’s nary a peep coming from within my house.

“What, do I disturb Your Majesty when I come downstairs in the morning?” my wife Sandy, who snuck up on me to take a look at the mighty words that I’m typing, just snarled at me.

“No, no, not at all. You are the sunshine of my life. You are the apple of my eye. You . . . ”

Oooh! Sandy has unloaded three big, fat kisses upon the crown of my head, one for each of its remaining strands of hair. See? It pays to be complimentary. And it pays to have three strands of hair. Now, there’s a couple of life lessons for ya!

Where was I? Oh yeah, the first hour after I jump, or should I say stagger, out of bed, leaving Sandy to her dreams.

This is my general routine: After visiting the bathroom I head into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of joe. The coffee always is waiting for me, for I fill our Mr. Coffee machine with ground coffee and H2O an hour before hitting the sack, and then set Mr. C’s timer to begin the brewing process at 6:25 AM. The coffee without fail tastes vibrant and strong, because I use a lot of ground coffee in proportion to water, and have discovered over time a number of java brands that really make the grade.

Being a guy who’s happy to provide public service, I’m now going to impart what might be useful information to some: Try combining two or three coffees to create your own personal blend. The flavors and intensities most likely will be very complimentary. If they’re not, then experiment till you find a blend that suits your taste. Me, I use three coffees, one of them decaf, in equal proportions. The current choices are Melitta’s Classic Decaf, Melitta’s Columbian Supreme and Lavazza’s Intenso. I tell you, just writing about my morning beverage is setting me all aquiver. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s jolt!

Okay, getting back to October 4: Filled cup in hand, I relocated to the living room sofa at 6:45 AM, as usual. And also as usual I opened my laptop and signed onto the BrainBashers website to bring up its selection of sudoku puzzles. Man, how did I live for so many years with no awareness of sudoku, a captivating numbers puzzle that I first attempted seven years ago? It didn’t take long for me to become an addict.

I felt content and subtly happy as I filled in numbers on a BrainBashers sudoku grid, giving my flabby brain its daily dose of exercise. And I became even happier when I flipped on my portable radio, something that I rarely do, silence-seeker that I ordinarily am at that time of morning. Lo and behold, at 6:59 a terrific, endearing song (Homesick) by The Marcus King Band burst forth from WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I think that Homesick helped speed my way through the puzzle’s nooks and crannies. At my discouragingly advanced age I need all the help I can get. Here’s Homesick:

So, the time has arrived for my second public service announcement: If ever you have the chance to see The Marcus King Band in concert, don’t toss it away. I plan to catch them when they pass through Philadelphia next month. They are tremendous, a young Southern rock/soul group whose leader (Marcus) plays electric guitar, well, electrifyingly. They knocked me out when I watched them on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show in August. And they knocked out Conan too, leaving him kind of gaga. These guys, I firmly predict, are going to become big. Here’s the band’s performance on Conan’s program:

I’ve now performed two good deeds in one day. Who knew that writing could be so fulfilling? Without a doubt I’ve earned myself a reward! And I know who will be delighted to bestow it upon me.

“Oh, Sandy! I think I discovered a fourth strand of hair. The crown of my head sure could use another kiss.”

“Oh yeah?” says Sandy from 60 feet away. “I’ve already blessed your scalp three times today. That’s my limit. I’m done.”

Shit! Life ain’t fair! I need a nap. Over and out, till next time.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Thanks.)

Signs In The Night, A Dive Bar, And Two Great Songs

Last week’s Wednesday evening found me in central Philadelphia, wandering its streets on assignment for the publication you’re now gazing at with loving eyes. I walked for several miles, zigzagging within the area bounded by Cherry, Spruce, 9th and 19th Streets, all the while giving my fingers plenty of exercise as I snapped picture after picture of illuminated signs. For that was my mission: To capture images of glowing signs, in much of their variety and in all of their glory, under darkened skies.

Chinatown (10th Street between Arch and Cherry Streets)
Chinatown (Arch Street between 10th and 11th)

The train that I boarded in my suburban town delivered me to Jefferson Station, at 11th and Market Streets, at about 7:30 PM. Not much more than a handful of minutes later, night began to emerge. Only a block north of the station I strode into the city’s compact and enticing Chinatown section. There I took my first photo of the evening. And then another and then another . . . Hey, one of these days I might devote an entire essay to Chinatown. It’s worthy, very much so. But I had miles to go before I slept, or something or other like that, so I gave Chinatown a nice looking-over and then made my way to other parts of town.

9th and Market Streets
13th and Sansom Streets

The temperature had peaked at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35°C) during the day, but was six or seven degrees lower during my mighty walk. Not too bad temperature-wise. Still, conditions weren’t all that great, what with Amazon jungle-like humidity hanging around. Yo, I was sweating like a f*cking pig. But manly man that I am, I motored on uncomplainingly, though if my wife Sandy had been with me I’d probably have been whining to her like a major wuss.

Corner of Broad and Spruce Streets
15th Street near Latimer Street

Anyway, the walk pleased me a lot. Not long into it I realized that I was having grand fun. After all, I love to wander. And I love looking at the sights, including cute girls, quite a few of whom passed before my eyes. In fact, loads of people, cute or not, were on the streets with me, engaging in the sorts of activities that humans are prone to engage in: strolling around; checking each other out; heading to or from work; schmoozing with their pals on street corners or at sidewalk restaurant tables; popping in and out of stores and bars. Not surprising, because Philadelphia has got what it takes. It’s big, it’s fascinating, there’s a ton to see and do any time of day. Yup, I could gush some more about the city that I know better than any other in the good ol’ USA, but that previous sentence will do for now.

Walnut Street between 16th and 17th
Bus stop at 18th and Walnut Streets

What I forgot to mention is that I also love to snap photos with my iPhone’s camera. And there were countless opportunities to snap away, so full of lit-up signs is much of The City Of Brotherly Love at night. I pretty easily could have added 150 more to the 53 shots I took, but I limited myself to scenes that rang my bell in a just-so sort of way. And I’ve scattered some of my output, obviously, throughout this essay.

Corner of 19th and Sansom Streets
Corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets

My adventure ended at 9:50 PM, when I went to Suburban Station to catch a train that would transport me to my little town. Fifty minutes earlier though, the night had taken an unexpected turn, an excellent turn that was outside the realm of my assignment’s mission. For heading north on 15th Street, near the corner of Spruce, I spotted a sign that I’ve seen many times over the years. The sign proudly proclaims the existence of a bar that, during the 1980s, I frequented aplenty. McGlinchey’s is its name, and smoky air is part of its game. Yes, Philadelphia has had a no-smoking law in place since 2006, but certain establishments have applied for and been granted exemptions from the clean-air policy. They qualify because only a tiny percentage of their revenues comes from food. McGlinchey’s gobbled up an exemption. Thus it continues to smell almost as bad as a men’s locker room. But it could be worse. I mean, what if the joint smelled almost as bad as a ladies‘ locker room?

Just kidding! Just kidding!

I hadn’t been inside McGlinchey’s for about 30 years, largely because I gave up smoking in the mid-1980s, after which I became less and less keen about cigarette fumes. But the opportunity to revisit a former haunt seemed too ripe to pass up the other night. And so I entered.

15th Street near Spruce

Had McGlinchey’s changed? Well, the lights were really dim, unlike the much higher wattage that I recall from the 1980s. And the beer selection was much improved, heavy on the quality sorts of ales that have entered the marketplace in enormous numbers since 1995 or so. But basically you’d have to say that McG’s is, as it was in the era when I dropped by consistently, a dive bar. Hazy, smelly air is all a bar needs to nab that honor. McGlinchey’s contains that variety of air in spades.

I ordered a draft beer, Fuller’s London Pride, a delicious brown ale that came to Philadelphia all the way from, duh, London. It went down my gullet very nicely, thank you. In the middle of my third or fourth sip I snapped out of a second-hand-smoke-induced stupor when I noticed that music was projecting clearly and loudly from speakers above my head. The song was a great one, an obscure number about love and disillusionment. It shot straight to my emotional core. In a million years I’d not have expected Ruby And Carlos, by James McMurtry, to be in McGlinchey’s jukebox.

But I was totally floored by what happened after the final strains of Ruby And Carlos dissolved into the dank air. That’s because the rousing and inspiring Fisherman’s Blues, by The Waterboys, came on. I had to restrain myself from singing aloud. So I mumbled the lyrics quietly to myself as I pulled on my beer. Smoke or not, I was in the right place at the right time. Music heaven, so to speak.

Well, the jukebox went silent after Fisherman’s Blues. I finished my Fuller’s and went back on the streets to do my photographing thing for a while longer. The last shot I took, of the intense red, white and blue of Republic Bank’s signs, is one of my favorites of the night. Soon afterwards, the Warminster line’s 10:05 PM train pulled into Suburban Station. I climbed aboard, my assignment over. I’d had yet another sterling outing in Philadelphia, one that detoured in a direction that I’d never have anticipated.

Corner of 19th and Market Streets

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

(It’s possible that the McMurtry and Waterboys songs that I’ve included won’t play for you. That’s because YouTube has licensing rules that sometimes block music or videos from opening, depending upon where on our planet you reside. If that’s the case in your nation, then you might want to search YouTube (or other sources) to find versions that will work. You won’t be sorry.)

An Old-School Story (Four Great Songs)

How many good musical recordings have been made over the years? Man, coming up with an answer to that one is a tall, tall order. First of all, there are the millions upon millions of records you’d have to listen to. And then there’s this sticky point: Who’s to say what good is?

Still, I’m undeterred! I’ve placed the query on my TBDBIDBPL (To Be Determined Before I Die, But Probably Later) list, which now has 46,786 entries on it. I’ll take that list with me to my grave, where I intend to continue working on it. What, like I’ll have anything better to do?

Getting back to my questions: You know, some days you just plain luck out when it comes to hearing music that rings your bell just right, even within a really compact amount of time. That’s precisely what happened to me on a recent Saturday afternoon as I backed my car out of the driveway. The Hyundai, feeling parched, was pleading with me to inject some refined liquid down its maw. It was going on and on, making a big deal out of nothing. Hell, cars, like humans, sure as shit can be emotionally needy. “Yeah, yeah,” I said not so soothingly, “where do you think we’re headed?” And continued on my way to my favorite gas station.

The gas station is a measly 0.9 miles from my house. If I lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the trip to the station, by car, might take two minutes. But I live in suburban Philadelphia, which isn’t any better traffic-wise than living in just about any part of The City Of Brotherly Love itself. In my little town, traffic lights and stop signs abound. What’s more, a few blocks from my house are railroad tracks upon which passenger trains do their thing throughout much of the day. It’s not easy to avoid meeting railroad track gates in the down position. They seem to be down a whole, whole lot.

The point that I’m making, and it’s not exactly a genius observation, is that in our day and age it can take longer to get from Point A to Point B than you’d like. Normally I wouldn’t have been thrilled that my mini-trip to the gas station used up 10 minutes of my life, crawling along as I was on the first leg of the expedition, then coming to a total standstill at horizontal railroad track gates, then crawling along some more before pulling into the gas station.

But I wasn’t mad at all. In fact I was cheerful and loose as a goose, because I spent those 10 minutes bopping to four mighty fine songs. They came to me consecutively on Soul Town, a great station on SiriusXM satellite radio. It’s a good day when I Thank You (by Sam & Dave), First I Look At The Purse (The Contours), Bernadette (The Four Tops), and James Brown’s Hot Pants Part 1 enter your life. A very good day.

Now, I’ve decided not to devote much wordage to the beauty of these songs or to their artists. I figure that nearly everyone who reads my stories has heard these recordings any number of times and knows of their majesty. And if that’s not true for you, then you’ve got yourself some livin’ and learnin’ to do! The numbers are old-school classics (they came out between 1964 and 1971) and are guaranteed to get you reeling and rocking, which, generally speaking, are excellent ways to behave.

I listen to music of all different sorts from all different eras, but I never stray too far from the kind of fare that Soul Town broadcasts: soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. Funny thing is that I’ve gotten much deeper into these genres over the last eight or so years than ever before. I always liked them aplenty, but I’m a real nut about them now. Superb singing; fabulous arrangements; beats that’ll send you to the sky (and maybe to the chiropractor) if the tune is a heavy workout, or make your heart melt if it’s a ballad; and strong melodies. What more could you want? And yeah, I know that Hot Pants Part 1 isn’t blessed in the melody department, but that’s not what that tune’s all about. As James Brown says: One two, one two three, uh!!

So, get down while the getting down’s good, girls and boys. The four songs here are anything but of the ballad variety. Yeah, baby, I can see you, now you’ve got it, keep on going, c’mon, c’mon, oh yes you’re smokin’!

I’m seconds away from saying over and out, as this here is a piece whose main purpose, I suppose, is simple and clear: to set cyberspace a-tingling a bit with songs that have what it takes. You bet we’re lucky to live in a time when it’s oh so easy to bathe luxuriously in terrific music. Terrific music is all around us, only a click or a tap away.

Over and out.

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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.

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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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