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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Donnie Trump Doesn’t Like Me

Ah, it’s a comfortable day. Inside my house, that is. Outside, the temperature is an ass-nipping 23° F, too frigging cold for my refined tastes, as I begin to type yet another woozy sort of essay. Tight and controlled, not woozy, would be preferable, seeing that my membership status in The American Association Of Pseudo Writers has been on very shaky ground for awhile now, courtesy of Donnie Trump. If TAAOPW boots me out I’ll be required, per the organization’s guidelines, to put my blog in the deep freeze. And then what will I do with all of the time and energy I devote to blogging? Plea over and over with Cheez-Its’ parent company (Kellogg’s) to hire me as national spokesperson for the crispy, orange wonders that are my fave snack food? Go after the world record for consecutive minutes spent compulsively cleaning a clothes dryer’s lint filter (the current record is 368 minutes)? Well, I’d come up with something. No doubt about that. But I’d rather continue blogging.

AP photo/Nam Y. Huh
AP photo/Nam Y. Huh

As I mentioned, Donnie Trump, another orange wonder, is the cause of my current worries. Talk about a thin-skinned guy. I mean, did I say anything all that bad about him in the story I wrote in November (click here to read it)? How’d he even find out about that piece in the first place, considering that mine is one of the least-read publications on our globe? It must have been his private intelligence network that uncovered me. Man, they’re good. After all, it took them only — what? — six years to determine that Obama’s American birth certificate is legit? Impressive. Donnie sure knows how to surround himself with the best of the best.

Donnie’s discovering my November story is one thing. But his going after its virtually unknown author is another. How’d you like your incoming president throwing lightning bolts at you? No more than I do, I guarantee you. Totally predictably he complained about me on Twitter (“Neil Scheinin lies. And when he’s done lying he lies some more. Not fair. Unworthy of an American journalist.”). He forced my alma mater, The University of South Hoboken, to reduce my grade point average by 25 percent retroactively, nearly five decades after my graduation. And, worst of all, he put the heavy shoulder to TAAOPW, ordering them, if they know what’s good for them, to monitor my every blog story meticulously. I haven’t fared too well in that review process, TAAOPW so informed me. Where, then, will my second Trump opus land me?

That question is a heavy one. In hopes of lightening its answers I have decided to reach out to Donnie Trump, whom, as my November article explains, I knew many moons ago on a high school debate team for which he starred and for which I sat in the wings as the fifth alternate. I spoke with Donnie in writing that piece, our first conversation in eons. Bear with me as I look up his phone number and try to reach him again. Dum dum duh dum dum . . .  the phone is ringing. And still ringing. And, yes! I have him on the line.

“This is Donald. Make this fast, whoever you are. The toilet in the master bedroom is leaking. I’m expecting a plumber to get here any minute now.”

“It’s Neil Scheinin, Donnie. The fifth alternate. The guy whose life you’re wrecking. What’s the deal, dude? Where’s your heart, man?”

“What, you again? Don’t you have lawyers? If you’ve got a gripe with me, they should be the ones handling the situation. Not a loser like you.”

“Donnie, I’m here to appeal to your better side, the one you show to Putin. Listen, I can handle your delusional tweet. And I don’t care about my GPA. It was embarrassingly low to begin with. But trying to kick me out of blogging? That’s going too far, man. I dig writing, Donnie, and my blog is where I deposit the written word, where I express myself creatively. Without my blog my life will be an even emptier shell than it already is.”

Photo by Mike Licht/Flickr
Photo by Mike Licht/Flickr

“Fifth alternate, I could care less about your happiness or your sense of fulfillment. You wronged me, fifth alternate. You wronged me. Maybe you forgot that I’m a firm believer in retribution. That’s why Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino are my favorite directors. Fifth alternate, one of my administration’s goals is to take down your blog within the first 100 days that I’m in office. Without a doubt I can do it. Those nitwits who run The Pseudo Writers Association, or whatever they call it, are playing ball. Once the plumber fixes the toilet and leaves I’m going to get in touch with them again and hammer the nail home. Loser, your blog is history. What’s that rat-a-tat-a-tatting that I hear in the background, by the way?”

“That’s my fingers typing away, Donnie. I’m transcribing this conversation as we speak. Anything else you’d like to add?”

“Shove it, you piece of  sh . . . ”

Readers, before he could finish that thought I hung up on our president-elect. For the second time in recent months I might add. My fingers continue to type. This story, I’d say, is now complete. In seconds I will hit the Publish button. After you have read the article, I ask you to petition TAAOPW on my behalf. In the end your efforts might outweigh Donnie’s influence, allowing this humble, woozy blog to continue its run. It’s never too late to try and stop Trump. Thank you very much.

The Final Curtain . . . Oy Vey

finalcurtain-hqdefaultMortality, one of the less-than-fun subjects to ponder, has been on my mind a tad more than usual of late, and I’ve been dealing with it like the well-adjusted adult that I fantasize being. I know why my gaze has moved slightly in that direction, and I’ll get to that shortly. Luckily, though, I normally don’t give the topic a whole lot of thought, which I suspect is the case for nearly all of us. Most days I subconsciously shrug my shoulders in the face of the inevitable and continue performing my clumsy dance through life. There’s nothing we can do about the final curtain, so why sweat it? It’s out there. We know that. And one of these days it’s going to drop . . . Hey, wait a minute. That’s really true, isn’t it? One of these days it is going to drop. On little ol’ me. Me, who never hurt more than a few thousand flies in his life. Me, who makes it a point to help the elderly cross the street whether they want my assistance or not. It’s not fair, I tell you! It’s not fair! Holy crap, I’m bumming myself out. I need to walk away from my computer’s keyboard and try to calm down before I resume work on this depressing essay. A beer, that’ll help. Let’s make it a six pack. Better yet, a full case. I’ll be back at some point, unless that f**king curtain falls sooner than I expect it to.

(Three days later). As promised, I’ve returned. And I’m in fighting shape once again. It’s time to continue. I recall a conversation I had six or seven years ago with a childhood friend. I was in my early 60s at the time and recently had celebrated a birthday. “You know, I’m not getting any younger,” or something similarly clichéd I said to her. “Neil, you’re not old. To me you’re youthful,” she more or less said to me. What? Was she kidding? All I could think of was an indisputable fact: Even if I were to live for another 30 years, I was a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. And today, as I barrel down the track towards age 70, which is a mere 10 months away, that’s far truer than it was then. Oy vey, what’s a poor boy to do?

Aging. Closing in on the finish line. They are mystifying phenomena. And when you’re truly getting up there in years they can be hard to wrap your head around. My mother, for example, couldn’t believe it when she turned 70. She laughed and laughed when talking to me about the dubious milestone she had reached. 70? Hah! She probably thought of herself as being 45 or 50, and those numbers pretty well reflect the way I think about myself today. But time marches on unconcernedly, despite what’s going on in our imaginations. My mom, a wonderful person whose health problems were considerable and heartbreaking, is long gone. The grains of sand in her hourglass’s upper section emptied pretty quickly after her 70th spin around the Sun.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike

And now it’s time to mention the reason I’m writing this story, which for sure is not of the fluffy and puffy sorts that I usually populate cyberspace with. Yes, philosophy fans, once in a blue moon I cautiously reach into my mental library of deep thoughts and pull out a couple. Problem is, my supply is incredibly limited, so I have to ration them carefully. Right, I still haven’t mentioned the reason. Well, Sharon Jones is the reason. Sharon Jones, the gritty and splendid soul/funk singer. Sharon Jones, who didn’t find musical success until firmly in her middle age and probably was all the more appreciative of it for that. Sharon Jones, who a couple of weeks ago joined the long list of notable musicians (Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, et al.) whose tenures on Planet Earth ceased in 2016. She made it to only age 60.

When I heard about Sharon’s death I felt sad. Quite sad. And not because I was a devout fan of hers. I wasn’t, though probably I should have been, as she was really, really good. Instead, her passing brought me up short because of something that I suspected to be very true. Namely, that undoubtedly she was a lovely person, someone whom I’d have been lucky to know and be pals with. I came away with those observations five years ago when my wife Sandy and I went with a group of friends to see Sharon perform in Philadelphia. As always, she was with The Dap-Kings, a horn-heavy, swaggering band she’d hooked up with in 2002, and found acclaim with over the succeeding years.

Sharon and The Dap-Kings’ performance was part of a weeks-long arts celebration that Philadelphia put on in the spring of 2011. On April 30 of that year she and her bandmates climbed the outdoor stage set up in the heart of town. They were the final act of that day’s street fair. The stage sat in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare, and all around it were oceans of human bodies. I don’t know how, but Sandy and I and our friends found a few feet of open space pretty close to stage right. I was pumped. I knew that Sharon and company would be good, but had no idea they’d be fantastically good. And Sharon led the way. For an hour and a half or so she absolutely commanded the stage, shimmying and strutting and testifying and propelling songs to the skies with her powerful vocal cords. My God, she and The Dap-Kings rocked the city to its knees.

I was entranced. Not only that, I could tell that Sharon Jones was beyond ordinary in more than musical ways. That became obvious when she invited a group of little kids, who had been dancing their hearts out a few feet in front of her, to join her onstage. Sharon went wild with them, and the crowd roared. And they also roared, during the group’s signature song (100 Days, 100 Nights), when, with a “Come on, baby,” she motioned to a young man in the audience, Thomas, to climb up and party madly with her. She and Thomas made an exuberant couple. Here is the video of Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings and Thomas:

What can I say? Beautiful people, those who are open and joyful, behave as Sharon did that afternoon. By that I mean that Sharon was a beautiful person. Which is why many in this world will miss her. It’s a sorrowful day when a bright light goes out.

 

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