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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The Sweet Spot (Musically Speaking)

It was a typical Sunday evening in the Scheinin home. There we were, my wife Sandy and I, sitting on the living room couch, twiddling our thumbs in unison and waiting for the tea kettle to come to a boil. I know that this picture sounds bland, but you’d be surprised how strongly it, and many similar moments in my life and Sandy’s life, resonate with a group of media honchos who for now will go unnamed. Let me just say that Sandy and I have been tabbed to star in a reality TV series projected to air beginning in early 2017. It’s tentative title is Action Is Overrated: Flying Low With The Scheinins. Stay tuned to this website for updates.

Earlier in the day, though, I had gone against grain and been an energetic person. In the aftermath of January’s Blizzard Jonas, which had dumped two feet of snow in my suburban Philadelphia region the previous day, I had spent three hours shoveling. Incredibly, my back hadn’t stiffened like a log. In fact it felt pretty good as, the kettle finally having tooted,  Sandy and I settled back with our cuppas and I started paying attention to the tunes emanating from the radio. On most Sunday nights we flip between three stations which, at those hours, keep things on the non-bombastic side. We didn’t feel the need to scramble our brains with punk rock or heavy funk or avant garde jazz. Not that I would have minded, to tell you the truth, but I wasn’t in the mood to provoke divorce proceedings.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons

And at around 8 PM something wonderful happened. WPRB, Princeton University’s eclectic-minded station, played a song that changed my tunings. The song not only caught my attention, it caused me to melt and then to float. I liked that. “Oh wow,” I said to myself. “I wouldn’t mind a joint right now.” But those really high days are so far behind me I’d need Daniel Boone to help me find the trail leading back to them. Instead, I settled for present-day reality. Closing my eyes I began to vibrate in a most splendid way. I followed the music as it traveled, gently swirling in and around the sounds. Gram Parsons’ countrified version of The Streets Of Baltimore (click here to listen) had gone straight to my sweet spot.

Sweet spot? I’m definitely at a loss to say exactly what this is. In nearly 60 years as a music imbiber I hadn’t given it much thought till Gram came on the radio the other night, although I’d been its beneficiary thousands of times before. I suppose that my sweet spot is a magical kind of place whose gatekeepers, when awakened by just-right combinations of tones and rhythms, send me on a calm yet mysteriously exciting journey. It’s all very cool.

But you know, music can bypass my sweet spot and still make me feel great. For instance, there’s nothing better than straight-ahead Stonesy rock when pumping up my internal volume is a priority. And Sinatra singing I’m A Fool To Want You or some other such brooding song is my ticket to a deep and contemplative experience. At times though, such as on the post-Jonas night, I realize that I want nothing more than allowing my sweet spot to be opened. Stringed instruments often, yet hardly always, hold the key.

The Waterboys
The Waterboys

Soon after WPRB’s disc jockey spun The Streets Of Baltimore he threw another transporter at me, and it got to me even more than the Parsons number. It was Fisherman’s Blues (click here to listen), a Celtic-rocker by The Waterboys. The Streets Of Baltimore’s gorgeous pedal steel guitar and fiddle lines, trancelike clip-clop beat and Gram’s quietly potent singing had sent me to the upper atmosphere. Fisherman’s mandolin and fiddle work took me even higher. Man, those two instruments intertwined like perfect friends, hard and steady drumming allowing them to soar. And Mike Scott’s gruff vocals and exuberant whoops?  Spine-tingling.

The Robins
The Robins

After Fisherman’s Blues ended I wanted another sweet ride. Turning thumbs-down on the next few songs that WPRB aired, I flipped over to University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN, but came up empty there too. Another channel switch brought me to the low wattage operation based a few miles from where I live, the all-volunteer WRDV. I’m crazy about this station. Five or so years ago it reignited my love for R&B, soul and doo wop. And minutes after I tuned in on that recent Sunday night they played a song that took me away: My Heart’s The Biggest Fool, recorded and released in early 1953 by The Robins, a pretty popular R&B vocal group during that era. I tip my hat to WRDV for knowing about this obscurity. I’d never heard of the song before (click here to listen). As it played I went with the flow and swam for the third time that evening through the ethers. Simple instrumentation, vocals that swell and bubble majestically, understated electric guitar work that subtly pushes things along. Magnificent.

Sweet spots. We’re lucky we have ’em.

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