If (A Musical Story)

a2z_logo_final_social-620x324If, if, if. If only WXPN, a supremo radio station in Philadelphia, hadn’t come up with the idea to play almost 6,000 songs in strict alphabetical order, based on their titles, then I’d never have been flailing around helplessly in the monstrously deep rabbit holes that abound within my cranium. But XPN did, starting at 6:00 AM on November 30 with The Jackson Five’s smash hit ABC (click here to listen), and proceeding around the clock for what seemed like forever. The station finally closed the lid on the affair mid-day on December 17 after airing a song that just about nobody knows, ZZ Top Goes To Egypt (click here), by a band that just about nobody knows, Camper Van Beethoven. A tune with a title that begins with a double Z . . . who’d have thought that an animal like that exists? Leave it to the music worshippers slash obsessives at WXPN to come up with a stunning conclusion to the marathon.

And talk about obsessives. Me, I thought I was done with being one of them. Over the last few decades I’d shed a good ninety percent of my excessive tendencies. Still, backtracking happens, and I found myself being swallowed whole by what XPN was up to. Yeah, I got so involved with the A-to-Z my bodily systems started backfiring. For days I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. Even worse, I didn’t watch my favorite episodes of Duck Dynasty and The Real Housewives Of Atlanta over and over on demand. And not just because I was hopelessly involved in listening to that avalanche of music. Uh-uh. I also had been captured by letters, words, the whole alphabet thing. I was beaming in hard on alphabetic considerations of song titles. Pathetic, man.

I’d never before given more than a cursory thought to the words that song titles begin with or to the patterns that the titles form. Who knew that tons of titles begin with Just, for example? Or that there might be any titles starting with X (such as X Offender, by Blondie). Or that some letters (e.g. T, S and I) are the first letters of an astounding number of song names. Or that one artist (David Bowie) might show up with back-to-back songs (Fascination and Fashion), so tightly are their names alphabetically related.

“What’s going to follow Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot?” I frantically wondered during December 3rd’s early moments, unable to come up with the fairly obvious answer that soon hit the air: Dancing Days by Led Zeppelin. And I frantically wondered about countless other minutia throughout the A-to-Z, following along online as XPN posted each addition to its playlist (click here to see the playlist). Letters! Words! Sequences! My geeky and anal ponderings were getting the best of me. I needed relief, blessed relief. Who or what might be my savior?

“Snap out of it, you fool!” my wife Sandy commanded me, eight days into XPN’s extravaganza, as she dumped a pitcher of cold water onto my head. I was seated on the living room sofa, ears glued to the radio. “Thanks, Sandy, I needed that,” I said as the refreshing liquid ran lovingly from my head to my toes. I rose, gave Sandy a well-deserved hug and walked across the floor to turn off the radio. Over the following days I continued to listen to XPN, but in reasonable servings.

I guzzled many hundreds of the thousands of songs that spewed from WXPN’s studios during the festival. Great music abounded, yet one song more than any other brought me up short and went straight to my heart. It’s an oldie that most folks know. And, for reasons unknown, I heard it — no, felt it — much more powerfully than ever I had before.

Many sublime songs (Love Train; I Love Music . . . ) flowed from the minds and pens of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but did any equal or surpass If You Don’t Know Me By Now? No way. Gamble and Huff, two of the progenitors of The Sound Of Philadelphia that soulfully and majestically conquered the world in the 1970s, surely realized that they had created a diamond when the writing sessions for that number reached their end. What a song, its finest version being the 1972 original by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. It’s a manifesto about the need for trust and honesty and, more than anything, a declaration of true love. You quiver when Teddy Pendergrass, lead singer for HM&TBN, unleashes pleas robed in frustration. When the rest of the group fills in all the blanks with angelic vocals that cushion and counterbalance Teddy’s hot emotions, you levitate and maybe find a few tears drizzling down your cheeks.

Sandy doesn’t know this yet, but one evening soon I’m going to dial up If You Don’t Know Me By Now’s number, turn the volume to a gentle but firm level and swirl with her around our living room. The song is in waltz time, and even a four-left-footed sloth like me can handle a waltz. Here, then, is the best song I know of whose name begins with If.

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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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Three From The 70s

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the 1970s used to get a lot of bad press when it came to music. I’m talking about 70s music in general, not to overlook the extra helpings of guano that were hurled at disco and jazz fusion. I never bought into that, what with all the great material we got during that decade from Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye . . . the list is endless. The knocks ended ages ago. Hardly anyone gripes about 70s music anymore. I mean, more so than the tunes from any other decade, it has become the soundtrack to our lives. But what about those who used to parade with their “Disco Sucks” flags held high? Hey, put on Disco Inferno, by The Trammps, or the Stones’ Miss You, and I guarantee that they’ll be boogying on the dance floor like puppy monkey babies. And if you don’t know what a puppy monkey baby is, get with it and click here.

70_greatest_ever_FB
Which brings us to my abode on a Sunday morning last month. A quiet morning. The neighborhood’s brigade of lawn mowers hadn’t approached the starting line yet, and nearby dogs, for reasons unknown, weren’t barking their f**king heads off. I was listening to WXPN, a radio station based in Philadelphia. It was in the midst of one of its one-off events: The Greatest 70s Music Ever Weekend. I listened for two hours and caught all 22 songs that they played during that span. My degree of awareness varied from song to song, though, depending on each number’s ability to penetrate a mind trying to unravel the secrets of the universe. As usual I didn’t get too far with that. Most of the songs I knew. Man, I hadn’t heard Steve Forbert’s It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way in at least five years. Hadn’t heard Tom Traubert’s Blues, by Tom Waits, in decades. And Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)? Well, anyone who’s a dial flipper like me is going to run across that one a whole lot. It’s probably being played on at least one station in the world at every moment of every day. As well it should be.

The bottom line was that nearly every song on WXPN sounded good or better than good. But three of them rang my bells more than the others. And of those three, one in particular unmoored my boat and sent me . . .

The three songs I liked best are on these albums.
The three songs I liked best are on these albums.

My faves from the morning were Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, David Bowie’s Wild Is The Wind, and El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon and Garfunkel. Great recordings. Much of humanity is familiar with one or more of them. If I were asked to provide the briefest of descriptions of their essential natures, I’d say, in respective order: heartfelt, majestic, transporting.

I loved these three songs from the first moments that I heard them in the 1970s, which in each case was soon after their release on vinyl albums. Tupelo Honey is my number one song on the album of the same name from which it cometh, and the album is my number one among many primo efforts by Van The Man. Morrison was at the top of his game as a singer and songwriter when Tupelo Honey, the album, came out in 1971. I listened keenly last month as Tupelo Honey, the song, played on WXPN. My, my, my . . . how sweet it was, the languid pacing, each organ and guitar line issued oh so casually yet with a soulful caress, and Van’s voice wrapped tightly around the words, as if letting go would result in life’s lessening. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/She’s an angel of the first degree/She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/Just like honey, baby, from the bee.” This song is the best (click here to listen).

Yet, David Bowie’s version of Wild Is The Wind might be better. And, David the prolific songwriter, didn’t even pen the tune. It was the title song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, of a 1957 movie, Dimitri handling the notes and Ned the words. Wild Is The Wind fit like a glove among Bowie’s compositions on Station To Station, his soaring, riveting album from 1976. Wild Is The Wind is a mysterious ride. Guitars calmly anchor the production with repeating and chiming lines as Bowie’s vocals take flight. His singing is dramatic, touched with eeriness and loaded with falsetto leaps. I sat back on the couch last month and let the sounds wash over me. Wild Is The Wind is the best (click here to listen).

Yet, to me El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is better. Maybe because of its simplicity, its sweet melody that relaxes my knotted guts. And because of Simon’s and Garfunkel’s unaffectedly angelic vocals. And the flutes. No question, it’s the flutes that get to me more than anything.

El Condor Pasa was composed in 1913 by Daniel Alomia Robles, a Peruvian. Robles, the story goes, based his music on traditional Andean folk songs that date back who-knows-how-many-centuries, probably to the time of the Incas. And speaking of Incas, Simon apparently first heard the tune performed by the band Los Incas, with whom he toured a bit during his pre-Garfunkel days. He fell in love with the song. Some years later, Los Incas backed up S & G for the recording of El Condor during the sessions that resulted in a famous album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon added lyrics to Robles’ composition. The album came out in 1970 with El Condor as its second track.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for the pure, innocent high notes of Los Incas’ flutes. I heard El Condor on XPN at the beginning of my two hour session. I was still in bed. My eyes might have been open, but I closed them when the song came on the air. Up, up and away it took me. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is the best. I mean it. Click here to listen.

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(Photo of albums by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on it, a larger image will open)

Missing David Bowie

On January 11, a Monday, I heard about David Bowie’s passing. He had shuffled off this mortal coil the prior day. I was shocked by the news, though I’d hardly have described myself as a devout Bowie fan. As that Monday morning segued into afternoon, I couldn’t get Bowie out of my mind. Neither could my wife Sandy, who is far less of a Bowie devotee than I am. We were drawn, as if by an invisible force, to WXPN, the Philadelphia area’s most astute music radio station. In tribute to the great man they were playing Bowie music exclusively for much of the day. We listened for two or three hours, and when XPN turned to other programming at 7 PM Sandy and I put on WPRB, the Princeton University station, to see if Bowie reigned there. He did, and we listened to his songs for several hours more. I can’t think of many artists who, following their deaths, would receive radio homages of this sort. And of course the Bowie outpourings weren’t limited to radio. Media coverage of his life and death has been enormous and heartfelt worldwide.

David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)
David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)

Naively I suppose, I’ve been amazed by the degree of attention that Bowie, in death, has attracted. I’ve been very glad to learn that countless journalists and media commentators held him in really high esteem, not to mention legions of fans. On January 11 Bowie was a top global story, probably the top story, in newspapers, on television and throughout cyberspace.

And I’m struck by the extent that Bowie’s death has touched me. My reaction took me by surprise, wasn’t something I’d have predicted. I don’t know the last time a celebrity’s demise hit me so strongly. Maybe it was in 1980, when John Lennon left us. Lennon was one of my heroes. Though Bowie wasn’t, I admired the heck out of him during a swath of the 1970s and always have considered him to be a cultural giant. That accounts for part of my sadness, but not for all. So, what else was it about Bowie’s death that got to me? I’ve thought about this for awhile and have come up with two main reasons.

David Bowie recorded 26 studio albums. His final work, Blackstar, entered the marketplace on his 69th birthday, two days before he died. I own six of his albums. All of them are from the 1970s except for 2002’s Heathen. I love my six from the 70s. Each I believe is great, and the greatest to me is 1976’s head-spinning and majestic Station To Station. I don’t know why I stopped buying Bowie’s releases after Station To Station. I read about them, heard some tunes on the radio, but didn’t lay down any dollars again till 26 years later. Nothing new, I was just plain stupid. Here was a guy with a brilliant track record, whose albums I once had spun over and over, and nonchalantly I had abandoned his singular musical journey. It wasn’t till a few nights ago that I realized what I had missed. WXPN and WPRB played tracks from Low, Lodger, The Next Day and other albums I barely, if at all, was familiar with. The music, as I might have guessed, was fantastic. And I played Heathen on my CD player. I hadn’t listened to it in so long I didn’t recall a single number. David, I only partly knew ya’. I should have kept up. Mea culpa.

Still, missing out on a lot of David Bowie’s music isn’t the end of the world. But it’s an example of not paying attention to life, of letting life pass on by without proper appreciation. And that’s a big deal. I try fairly hard to savor the moment and to do the right thing, but there’s mucho room for improvement. Bowie’s death somehow made me look at myself and my underachieving approach. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

And Bowie’s passing did more than that. In the recesses of my mind I discovered some connective tissues that bonded me with him. You see, David Bowie was only a smattering of months older than I, and because of that I subconsciously had felt a kinship with him. And so when he died an internal link to my younger self broke and I started to contemplate the big picture even more deeply. I mulled over the kinds of thoughts that aren’t reassuring. Such as: Even if I make it for another 25 years I’m a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. Man, that’s a bummer. My excellent friend Jeff recently asked me if I believe that human life goes on in a spirit mode after the flesh fails. He’s a believer. I’m not. My take is that each person’s trip is confined to Planet Earth and that the trip is one-and-done.

That said, on with the party. I plan to buy a bunch of David Bowie albums soon, to catch up with someone, now-departed, whom I miss.

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