Not many days go by when I don’t think of my mother, Elaine Scheinin. This has been true since her passing in 1994. She lives on in my mind because she was an exceptionally fine person. Honest, warm and unpretentious. And blessed with an openness that few could resist. Pretty much everyone that knew her was crazy about her.
If I remember my output correctly, I’ve written about her only once before. That was in an article about the late, famed jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (click here if you’d like to read it). My mom, a jazz fan, became part of that article because she once spoke with Monk on the phone in 1976. Drawing up her courage, she took the initiative to obtain and dial his number (Monk, a Manhattanite, somewhat surprisingly did not have an unlisted phone number). She hoped to ask him if he knew that WKCR, a New York City radio station, was in the midst of airing a multi-day tribute to him and his music.
Monk answered the phone. Yes, he was very aware of the tribute. And he thanked my mother for calling him. I was sitting with her when she reached out to the great musician, and the incident left me awe-struck. Hers was a spontaneous and innocent act of good-heartedness and caring. She would have been disappointed if Monk somehow missed out on the love being shown to him on the radio.
Now, here’s the thing. I think of my mother often not only because of her enviable natural state of being, but also because of what happened to her in her middle age and how she responded to that tragedy. In 1969, when she was 49, her retinas hemorrhaged badly, a consequence of diabetes. She lost her sight, living the remaining 25 years of her life in total darkness. The pain I felt was intense. And it hasn’t lessened. Her blindness was, and in memory remains, heartbreaking to me.
For nearly all of those 25 years she didn’t complain, didn’t bemoan her fate. She suffered, but she almost always kept it to herself. At a party once, though, I overheard one of her sisters-in-law say this to her: “It’s a shame about your vision.” To which my mother responded, “You have no idea.” Those few words pretty much said it all.
Basically, my mom soldiered on, remaining the person she always had been, bright and optimistic, fully continuing her household work and community involvement. In the early 1990s, though, diabetes struck again, ravaging her body and ultimately her mind. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” has been asked by countless folks. The answer is that good people are not immune to the slings and arrows, and lightening bolts, of life. If only they were.
Ideally, I’d have liked to have published this remembrance on Mother’s Day. But I didn’t complete it in time. Better late than never, as the saying goes. Many of us are fortunate to have been raised by loving, good people. I surely was. My father was ace too. And so, I wish a Happy Mother’s Day, belatedly, to the fine ladies who give their heart and soul, selflessly, to their children. And I accompany that wish with a major tip of the hat.
It was about 8:30 on a recent Saturday morn. Breakfast having slid down my throat 15 minutes earlier, I was in position on the living room sofa where I was thumbing through the newspaper, absentmindedly twirling the handful of hairs on my head into poor facsimiles of ionic columns, and listening to the radio. In other words, per usual, I wasn’t doing much. But that’s the way I often like it.
The radio station generating tunes in my house was WXPN, the stellar music provider from Philadelphia that has sparked me to compose any number of stories since my blog’s inception in April 2015. I’ve given XPN a ton of free publicity on these pages, but that’s a-ok. They deserve it.
WXPN likes to keep things mellow on much of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Appropriately, they named the show that airs during those hours Sleepy Hollow. You ain’t going to hear anything by Albert Ayler or Public Enemy or The Sex Pistols on the Hollow. James Taylor and Billie Holiday and Conor Oberst you will. Nice and easy does it, as Frank Sinatra once sang.
And that’s fine with me. And with my wife Sandy. We’re of the sort who like to ease slowly into the day. Sleepy Hollow is the proper conduit for such.
There I was, then, having constructed two unstable ionic columns and working on a third, when a lovely song caught my attention. A few numbers later another beauty made my eardrums sigh. And, it being my lucky day, a third tune, sweet as it could be, soon entered my living room. I’d never heard the songs before. Right away I suspected that I was going to write about them.
The songs in question are Cold As Canada, Time Will Tell and Love Had To Follow. Paul Kelly, Gregory Alan Isakov and Ron Renninger, respectively, are their composers and singers. I’ve given each song repeated listenings on YouTube since that fateful Saturday morning and have not lowered my estimations of their qualities. They are real good works of art.
I think these songs grabbed hold of me because of their sonic similarities. Each is spare in instrumentation, and each singer handles his words gently. Plenty often that formula results in sappy drivel, but not in the case of the Kelly, Isakov and Renninger opuses. And what I realized, after first hearing them, is that they concern themselves with the most powerful and basic of human emotions, and the one that I’d guesstimate about 75% of the non-instrumental songs ever written either touch upon or are fully consumed with.
Sisters and brothers, we’re talking about love.
Yeah, love. I’m not exactly issuing any news bulletins when I say that love can be as present as air, as elusive as a yeti or as slippery as a shapeshifter. It might be hot, it might be tepid, it might barely register a reading on the Celsius or Fahrenheit scales. What can you say? . . . Love’s usually complicated.
We get three differing discussions of love in my Sleepy Hollow songs. Cold As Canada, tender and sorrowful, an ideal vessel for Paul Kelly’s nasal, Dylanesque voice, is about a gal whose love for her guy has faded a whole lot. Unhappily cold, she’s leaving him, knowing that, as Kelly writes, there’s “no good way to say goodbye.” There isn’t.
Cold As Canada, which comes from Kelly’s 2012 album Spring And Fall, is a straightforward and humble work, its melody clean and pure. Kelly, a gent of 62 with a four-decades-long career in place, is a major star in his native Australia and can rock vigorously. But rock he doesn’t on this song or on quite a few others in his large oeuvre.
Now, I’m a sucker for a waltz, especially one with an unusually beguiling melody. Which means that Time Will Tell doesn’t want to give up occupancy in my brain. If there’s a lovelier, more wistful tune out there, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. And you know what? A few days ago I almost rolled off my bed when I heard Time Will Tell in a Subaru television ad. Huh? How did Subaru come across this song? Whatever, I’m glad that what I imagine are decent bucks have landed in Isakov’s pockets. It’s a struggle for most musicians to pay the rent.
What we have in Time Will Tell is a lyric open to interpretation. The words are seductive and vivid, but somewhat cloudy at the same time. Blowing the clouds away, however, I’ve decided that the story concerns a couple, two good folks who have been together for a long time and, as good folks sometimes do, are wondering if their common path is separating. It might be, but not too seriously. Their love is destined to get back on track. “Time will tell, she’ll see us through.”
Time Will Tell, from 2013’s The Weatherman album, is not dissimilar to much of Isakov’s output. He’s a folkie at heart, a mystical one who has attracted a lot of fans and has sold a lot of tickets. At 38, he’s two decades into his career and seems to have found a good, solid path to mosey down.
What, then, of Love Had To Follow? This is an easy one to decipher, even for the likes of me who couldn’t get the gist of Horton Hears A Who and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The song is all about love at first sight, a love that lasts forever. Really, it’s that simple. I promise.
Unlike Kelly and Isakov, I’d never heard of Renninger before the Hollow brought him my way. He’s one of those guys who has been around forever (his music career began in the mid-1960s) but has never come remotely close to becoming even a wisp of a household name. But he’s still at it. Love Had To Follow is found on The Man Who Became A Song, his album of one year ago. If I owned a hat, I’d tip it to Renninger’s perseverance and love of music.
Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands, probably several million good songs have been written about love. I imagine that hundreds more were composed while I penned this article. Love . . . it makes the world, and the music biz, go round.
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If I were younger by about 30 years I’d buy a good pair of hiking boots and some mountaineering gear and then haul my ass up to the top of Mount Digitalium. Once at its summit I’d catch my breath before laying into the resident gods who control the performance of the internet and of computer hardware and software on Planet Earth. These titans are, needless to say, magnificently intelligent. They also are f*cking pains. And they seem to get a big kick out of being the latter.
“Yo!” I’d yell at them. “I can’t take it no more. It’s bad enough that my desktop computer has had a nasty case of the freezing-ups for the last year. And a worse case of the displaying-message-alerts-that-make-no-sense. But did you have to slip a bottomless bottle of vodka to the computer monitor two weeks ago? I can barely make out anything on it since then. It’s taken wobbly and blurry to Olympian heights.”
“And that’s not all,” I’d continue. “This morning my wife Sandy wanted to take a look at her most recent credit card statement, wobbly and blurry be damned. She signed into her account, and you know what? That’s a stupid question because of course you know what, seeing that you caused the problem in the first place. I’ll tell you anyway — the statements section of the website was empty. Nothing was available to examine or to print out!”
I would be shaking like crazy at this point. And the gods undoubtedly would let me shake for nearly forever before one of them made a comment or two.
“Thanks for stopping by, Earthling,” the chief god, Malfunctional, finally would say. “Now, though, it’s time for you to be on your way. Suck it up, fella, and figure out what your next steps should be. And, by the way, nobody ever said that life was easy for humans.”
That’s true. Nobody in their right mind ever did.
Back to what passes for reality. Still shaking, I fled the house and left Sandy to figure out what were the appropriate next steps, as I needed to be somewhere soon. Namely, at a local supermarket where once a week I bag and then load bakery items, donated by the market, into my car. Sandy delivers these goods to the food pantry she volunteers at.
Naturally, the credit card website situation wouldn’t disappear from my cranium. Man, I need to hire a personal assistant to handle tech issues for me and Sandy. It’d be worth it. That would free up more time for other aspects of living to rattle my very rattle-able nerves.
As I pulled out of the driveway, though, relief arrived. It came in the form of music, as often is the case for me. My benefactor was SiriusXM satellite radio’s The Loft, a channel that plays all sorts of good music. And the tune that filled the car’s interior and my ears as my journey to the supermarket began was a superb number that I hadn’t heard for some time: Al Green’s Tired Of Being Alone.
You know, there are hundreds of recordings that, when I hear them, I say to myself that they are just about as good as any recording possibly could be. That’s exactly what I thought when Tired Of Being Alone shot into my blood vessels and set me vibrating. A few simple, clear and rolling notes from an electric guitar, a handful of piercing trumpet blasts, and drums that snap steadily and regally set the table for Al’s entry. And what a pleading, powerful entry he makes. His is one of the great voices of the last 50 years, vulnerable when it needs to be, strong and sure when it doesn’t.
Not to downplay Green’s singing even a little bit, but I have to mention that I’m in love with the late Al Jackson Jr.’s drum work on Tired Of Being Alone. It couldn’t be more alive, even at the 1:47 mark when, empathizing with Green’s meandering, uncertain thoughts, it softens into a clickety-clack pattern for a spell. But when the spell breaks, Jackson’s drums explode, truly explode, as Green’s voice moves into vivid mode and female backup singers kick in loftily.
It all ends shortly after this, the dials in the studio having been gently turned to fade out the song. Maybe I wish that a different choice had been made conclusion-wise. I’d be a happy boy to be able to listen to another minute or more of Al’s and the gals’ and the instrumentalists’ amazing ride.
Or maybe it’s better that the proceedings were cut off artificially. After all, I was left breathless, a very good way to be left.
Al Green wrote Tired Of Being Alone in 1968. For various unimportant reasons it didn’t come out until 1971, and has been a pop music staple ever since. It’s a song about love, as most songs are. Al loves a girl. He can’t stop thinking about her. But she has sent him packing, and Al wants her back. He knows, though, that she’s unlikely to change her mind. But a guy can fantasize, can’t he? And that’s what Al does, ruminating during the song’s middle section about the nature of lost love and what he might be able to do to re-win a heart. With these words Al describes what many of us have felt at one time or another:
I’ve been wanting to get next to you, baby,
Sometimes I fold my arms and I say,
Oh baby, yeah, needing you has proven to me,
To be my greatest dream, yeah.
Many folks have heard Al Green sing Tired Of Being Alone not only on record but on stage. But will anyone ever encounter a stage version again? Hard to say. About 40 years ago religion called Al, and he, for the most part, left the pop music scene (his most recent tour was in 2012). He is the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tennessee. In an interview last year he left the door open for a return to public performance (click here), but I’m not holding my breath.
Yes, Al is doing what he must. And as he does so his many hits live on. I was a lucky individual to hear one of them on my way to the supermarket. It steadied my jangly nerves for a while. Thanks, Al. I needed that.
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“Yo, what the hell are you doing?” my editor, Edgar Reewright, shouted into the phone early last week. Wisely, I moved the receiver five inches away from my ear.
“I swear, never again will I take on a blogger as a client,” Edgar continued loudly. “Last week you wrote a story that featured three songs. And now you’re telling me that your next piece also is going to be about three songs? What gives, Neil? Can’t you come up with a different idea? How about writing about a childhood memory instead, like the time, when you were four years old, that you got your head stuck in an iron fence and Navy Seals had to be brought in to get you out? I tell you, if it weren’t for the $750 you pay me each week I’d drop you faster than I would a rattlesnake.”
“Edgar, maybe you mistake me for Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Updike,” I said. “They never lacked for things to write about. They were writing machines, for crying out loud. But me? Hey, story ideas don’t exactly flow from my cranium like lava. Right now, back-to-back pieces on music is the best that I can do. And how’d you find out about that iron fence incident anyway? The military’s report on it is locked away in their Too Weird To Be Made Public files.”
“Edgar,” I went on, “the check is in the mail. As always, it’s been a pleasure.”
I hung up. And Edgar didn’t call back.
Three songs it is then. A few weeks ago I heard them for the first time. They are good ones, two of them pretty spanking new and one an oldie that could be mistaken for a country-kissed soft rock number put on wax just yesterday. The tunes came to me via WXPN, a primo radio station in Philadelphia that should pay me a hefty fee for mentioning them as often as I have in my stories. WXPN loves to play new songs and obscure songs while finding plenty of space for ones we’ve heard a thousand times. I am one with the station’s mindset. That’s why XPN and I are pals.
I liked the three songs in question so much, I immediately made a note of their names and performers. Nightime Lady, by Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, was the first to reach my ears. Two days later, within minutes of each other, came Waxahatchee’s No Question and Zeek Burse’s Dry. As different as the three are, sonically-speaking, they share some common ground. Each examines love, for example, that most complicated and shape-shifting of emotions. And you can shake and groove to each of them, though the boogying you might do to Nightime Lady would be highly restrained compared with the workouts you’d get from the thrashing No Question and the pulsating Dry.
If I ever had heard Nightime Lady before, all memory of it was erased from my brain. I was slowly eating breakfast while leafing through the newspaper on a quiet Sunday morning when it came on the air. “Man, this is a lovely song,” I thought to myself. “Who is this? Sam Beam? Conor Oberst?” No, of course, it wasn’t either of those present-day heroes. I was a bit amazed when I soon found out that Rick Nelson is the singer and song’s composer. And that it dates back to 1972. Rick released the album Garden Party that year and had a monster hit with its title song. Nightime Lady is track number seven on that disc.
Well, I take Nighttime Lady as the tale of an immensely lonely man who finds comfort with and feels a mighty attachment to a lady of the night. Probably he has been with her on many an occasion. Lost when it comes to meeting true love, he’ll take whatever soothing caresses he can, wherever he may find them. I assume that Rick didn’t base Nightime Lady on personal experience. He always seemed well-adjusted to me, handling teen idol status in the 1950s calmly and politely. Then he plowed past those years to establish a long and successful career as a musician. Sadly, all came to an end when he died in a plane crash on the final day of 1985.
I was staring at the sky from my house’s deck when No Question grabbed me by my privates. Man, what a snarling rocker. It, and the album on which it appears (Out In The Storm), were released last month. I was panting for breath when the song ended because it doesn’t take much snarling before my head starts bopping to and fro uncontrollably. And oh happy day, WXPN wasn’t finished with me, as Dry, which came out in April on the album titled XXII, set me bouncing in my chair minutes later. Dry’s take-me-to-the-disco beats beckoned me to jump up and glide all over the deck à la Michael Jackson. I started to do exactly that, but then I remembered that my dancing ability is buried in the negative numbers. I stayed seated, though continuing to bounce in place.
No Question and Dry look at love from very different perspectives than does Nightime Lady. No Question’s young protagonist rages against her (former?) unfaithful lover. And in Dry we hear the thoughts of a guy who is ready to stay with and please his girl forever . . . or is he? He doesn’t seem all that certain, actually. Sure, everyone knows this, but I’ll state it anyway: If it weren’t for love — its solidity or lack thereof, its absence, its frustrations — hardly any songs ever would have been composed. Topic number one it is and has been, by far.
So, what’s up with the name Waxahatchee? It’s the stage and recording moniker that Katie Crutchfield, who sings lead and wrote every song on Out In The Storm, goes by. She took it from a creek, the Waxahatchee, in Alabama, the state she grew up in. Katie, who now lives in Philadelphia, has become big in the indie rock world over the last two or three years. And probably is going to get even bigger.
Big is a word that Zeek Burse, another Philadelphian, probably hopes one day will apply to him. Stranger things have happened. He sings great, and that’s a big start. And he can write, having composed or co-authored every track on XXII. Still, the music biz is rougher than rough. For now, Zeek remains one of who knows how many thousands of professional musicians that virtually nobody ever has heard of.
Before I say goodbye till next time, I’d be impossibly remiss not to mention a main reason I wrote this article. You see, when it comes to music, we live in storied times. The number of ear-pleasers out there is beyond incredible. Nightime Lady, No Question and Dry represent merely a nano-percentage of the millions of good songs I’d never heard before that I could have chosen. And that’s because nearly everything that ever has been recorded is available to us in our Spotify-edly and YouTube-edly blessed age. Musical riches that only a handful of years ago were unimaginable are now a click here and a click there away.
Party on, amigos!
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There are coincidences, and then there are coincidences. The latter type are so weird and unexpected even a fervent skeptic such as myself might be led to murmur a mighty “Mmmmm, I wonder . . .”
The most potent examples of unusual coincidences that I’ve personally come across began making their appearances not long after my wife Sandy and I moved into our suburban Philadelphia home. We set down stakes here in 2005 and soon met quite a few of the occupants of other houses on the block. Some of the adults lived alone, but most were couples of the heterosexual variety, with children. Proverbially happy couples, I believed. That’s why you could have knocked me over with a sturdy feather when next-door neighbor Tony [his and all other neighborly names have been changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty] told me in 2006 that his wife Diane had moved out and that they were divorcing. Huh? Well, you rarely really know what’s going on behind closed doors, right? I was sorry to see Diane go.
A few years later things went south fast for the next-door folks on the other side of our house. Tom and Nicole each let me know that they had decided to divorce, but that in the interim they would remain within the same abode. That arrangement went on for a while. Then Nicole moved away. The finalized divorce followed. Sandy and I scratched our heads, amazed that a second couple had gone down for the count.
Well, four years ago love disintegrated once again on my street. The victims were Bob and Yvonne, the pair living directly opposite from Sandy’s and my front door. They too remained within their abode, how I don’t know, while the wheels of divorce spun. A year later they sold their house, each moving elsewhere. Their divorce became legal soon after that.
Holy crap, what was going on? Had Sandy and I moved into Divorce Epicenter? Well, maybe, because the pattern continued. The new occupants of the house directly across the street saw to that. A year and a half after moving in, Horace moved out. Joan is still there. But there’s little chance of the two getting back together. They have divorced.
Incredible, no? But what can you say? Love is a complicated emotion. It ain’t easy to manage. It can be strong as granite. Or not.
A new movie, The Lovers, is a shining example of all of that, except for the granite part. Sandy and I watched it on the big screen a few weeks ago. It isn’t playing in many theaters anymore, but if it hasn’t yet made its way to Netflix and the like, undoubtedly it will before long.
Azazel Jacobs, who has had a nice cinematic career but has yet to hit it big, wrote and directed The Lovers. In the movie, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are a very confused, long-married couple that has grown apart. They have tired of one another Yet they live together. And, strangely, they sleep together, though on opposite sides of the bed, never touching for most of the movie. Each has found romance outside the home — Michael with Lucy (Melora Walters), and Mary with Robert (Aiden Gillen). Both Michael and Mary have promised to their flames that they will move in with them. But first they will have to spill the beans to their legal mates. That process is slow. Painfully slow. And it becomes complicated by the fact that far along the way Mary and Michael rediscover some smidgeons of the feelings that ages ago had brought them together.
Now, I liked The Lovers. But it sure paints a cynical picture of the human heart. Love comes. Love goes. Love can’t make up its mind. Love roils and muddies the waters. Is this the way it is out there for a hefty percentage of people in the real world, or merely a broad and comic exaggeration? I’m not someone with good answers to those questions. But I will say this: Twelve years ago I sure as hell wouldn’t have believed it possible for four couples living within spitting distance of me to call it quits.
That’s enough about love partly or fully on the rocks. It’s time to turn our attention to that which might have the power to keep love whole. And in Philadelphia I know of no better medicine for such than a visit, at night after the stars have come out, to the Race Street Pier. It’s a former commercial dock that has been repurposed and transformed, an example of tax dollars well-spent. Now it’s a public park, full of trees and lawn areas and wide walkways. It opened six years ago. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, connecting Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey, towers above the park. When darkness has fallen the bridge looks magnificent, glowing with thousand of lights that decorate its length. What a sight.
Sandy and I were on the pier a few weeks ago with our pals Cindy and Gene. The skies were clear, a perfect breeze tousled our Sassoon-worthy hairdos, and the bridge presented a commanding presence. For an hour we chatted while looking at the bridge, the boat traffic on the Delaware River and the lights in Philadelphia and Camden.
Race Street Pier is mutedly lit at night, and it’s not overrun with visitors. A more atmospheric and romantic urban place in which to spend some moments you’d be hard-pressed to find. The four of us fell under the evening’s spell, that’s for certain. And the spell was powerful, irresistible. Eventually, though, we had to leave, what with early morning hours fast approaching and our internal gas tanks running a bit low. We said goodbye to Race Street Pier, till next time. The two couples then bid one another adieu and made their ways to their respective homes.
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)
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.
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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If, 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 hereto 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.
A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.
I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click hereto listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”
Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”
Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.
At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.
Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?
Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.
Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.
Movie fans, that’s a wrap.
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The other day on the car radio I heard an oldie, from 1957, that I’ve always loved: Maybe, by The Chantels. I hadn’t heard it in so long, though, that I’d almost forgotten about it. Despite all of that elapsed time I immediately was hooked and cooked when Arlene Smith, the group’s lead singer, belted out the three descending notes that frame the song’s first word. “May-ay-be,” she cried.
Maybe is a direct and uncomplicated affair, driven by Smith’s heaven-and-earth-moving singing and by soulful piano chords. And its lyrics tell its tale very well, a tale that is fully revealed when, as you are meant to, you read between the lines. A girl knows that she and her boyfriend have reached the end. That there isn’t a whisker of a chance that they’ll get back together. That the day will come when she accepts her fate and moves on. But till then, to ease the pain, wishing and hoping can’t hurt.
Maybe if I pray every night/You’ll come back to me/And maybe if I cry every day/You’ll come back to stay/Oh maybe
Man, what a song. Sing it, Arlene, sing it.
The Chantels’ greatest hit stayed in my head for awhile, triggering a handful of brain cells to fire in a meandering pattern. And consequently I began thinking about how I might turn Maybe into an article for my blog. I mean, there have been worse ideas, haven’t there? And I’m always kind of desperate for subject matter, aren’t I? Well, maybe desperate is too strong a term. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t. Oh wow, there’s that word again. Twice.
Onward I marched to Google, where I poked around to see if there were other songs titled Maybe. Expecting none, I came across 23, and undoubtedly there are any number that I didn’t discover. Kelly Clarkson, K D Lang, Ingrid Michaelson and Split Enz, for instance, each recorded a Maybe that, like The Chantels’ Maybe, is about affairs of the heart. Deciding to pursue that avenue I examined the lyrics of those tunes and shrugged. They were OK but lacked the elemental power of the words to the Maybe that I know and adore. The Chantels’ Maybe, by the way, has a seemingly impossible-to-discover authorship. It is credited to the late Richard Barrett, a musician and music producer who helped The Chantels land a recording contract, but some scribes in cyberland claim it fully or at least partly was penned by Arlene Smith.
The march continued. Surely there was at least one more relationship-oriented Maybe of grand worth. Hey, how about the Maybe from 1926 by composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira? Those guys are in just about everyone’s pantheon. I began reading Ira’s lyrics to the song and halfway down came upon this couplet:
You will hear — “You hoo”/You’ll be near — “you hoo” . . .
Wait! Stop the lyrics! “You hoo”? Are you kidding me? Tyga, a rapper supreme, could do better, I figured. He too wrote a Maybe. Dig the first four lines:
B – – ch, I’m the sh – t/ B – – ch, I’m the sh – t/Repeat it to yo b – – ch/Tell yo b – – ch I’m the sh – t
Wow, Tyga’s the next Shakespeare, don’t you think? But I’d never be able to untangle Tyga’s complex treatment of male-female dynamics. And so I’d have thrown up my hands in frustration and ended this article right here were it not for the efforts of Allan Flynn and Frank Madden. They wrote a Maybe in 1935, and five years later it was recorded by various talents, most famously by The Ink Spots, who had a big hit with their kinda eerie spin on the tune. I let out a hurrah when I read the lyrics to the Flynn/Madden Maybe. They are good. The story, checking between the lines, shows a heartbroken soul who realizes that his/her relationship with a once-significant other has gone forever kaput. But, as with my favorite Maybe, wishing and hoping can’t hurt.
Maybe you’ll think of me when you are all alone/Maybe the one who is waiting for you will prove untrue/Then what will you do?
Here, then, are YouTube videos of The Chantels’ and The Ink Spots’ recordings of, respectively, Maybe and Maybe. But one final note: Perhaps you’ve enjoyed this article. And if so, possibly you’ll decide to share it (sharing buttons are below the videos).
On a recent weekend my wife Sandy and I added to one of the biggest lists we maintain. Namely, the list of movies that we have seen. We watch far more movies at theaters than at home, and the two I’m about to talk about were viewed from comfortable chairs in suburban Philadelphia cinemas. We went on a Friday with our excellent friends Barbara and Fred to see Burnt. The following night, unaccompanied, we took in Room.
I hadn’t thought of Burnt as a must-see, but I was more than happy to give it a go when Sandy informed me that she and Barbara had decided upon it. I like Bradley Cooper and I like food, and Burnt not only stars Cooper but is set in the world of high cuisine and celebrated chefs. Leaving the theater I was fine with Burnt. Then the next day I started to think about it a bit more, a dangerous thing to do, and downgraded my opinion. It’s an enjoyable movie, but nothing beyond standard. It’s pretty good at best.
Now, Room was another story. I had been under the impression that it is highly disturbing, with tough-to-watch violent scenes. I was reluctant to see it because of this. Sandy, however, told me that, from what she had read, I was wrong. Right she was. I didn’t have to close my eyes at all during the movie, as nothing bloodily horrific occurred. What did take place unfurled seamlessly, a heartwrenching and heartwarming tale that felt authentic. Room is a great movie, one of the very best that I’ve seen so far in the year 2015.
Seems to me that most movies, in one way or another, are about the human condition. Well, uh, duh. And the human condition, needless to say, is complicated, far too variable and malleable for an amateur observer like me ever to understand particularly well. I came away from Burnt and Room, though, with the idea that, vastly different as they are, they address some of the same questions: What does it take for a person to become well-oiled and smoothly-functioning and goodhearted? To fit in the world healthily?
In Burnt, Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, once a top-of-the-line restaurant chef who imploded and burned his bridges several years before the movie’s opening moments. Anger, unhappiness and the subsequent drugs and drink did him in. Early in the action we find him doing self-imposed penance as an oyster shucker in a New Orleans restaurant. He has been clean and sober for a couple of years and has decided that he will take his place as an elite chef once again, but only after he has shucked one million oysters. That milestone reached, off he heads to London, where associates from his past are in the culinary game.
Aggressive, fast-talking and manipulative, Jones magically in no time is at the helm of a fancy fancy eatery in a fancy fancy hotel. You go, bro! Though recognized as a maestro in the kitchen, Jones for some reason feels obligated to treat his boss and kitchen staff in a bullying and disrespectful manner. And he gets away with it. Apparently the stoppage of substance abuse didn’t stop Jones from being an asshole. How come? — go ask the screenwriter. But what really got me was that so many people, despite Jones’ obnoxious ways, have an underlying deep affection for him. Made no sense to me. Go ask the screenwriter.
But Adam Jones is not all bad. Hints of decency peek through. And he owns a degree of self-awareness. If he is to morph into the person whom others, remarkably, are rooting for him to become, he will need to drop his defenses and allow their good feelings to reach him, and allow his blood to warm. We’re talking here about love, the key to life.
Yup, high-speed and breezy Burnt is a flawed production about a flawed human being. But there are two good reasons to see it, Bradley Cooper for one. He is a fine actor. Adam Jones is a complex guy, and Cooper draws a complete picture.
And then there’s the food. I’m a sucker for beautifully filmed looks at the preparation and downing of gorgeous and delicious meals. A good one-sixth of Burnt has the camera focused on this tasty stuff. Thinking about it now is making me hungry.
Speaking of flaws, stay away from Room if you’re looking for them. It is one of those movies that gets everything right. The screenplay, cinematography, pacing, acting. Brie Larson and child actor Jacob Tremblay perform astonishingly in the lead roles. The rest of the small cast also is outstanding. I see a bushel of Oscar nominations in Room’s future.
Room’s examination of how best to grow in the world, unlike Burnt’s, is profound, multidimensional and moving. What, though, is the world? When Room commences, it is a one-room shed for 24-year-old Joy Newsome (Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack (Tremblay). They have been held prisoner there by perverted Old Nick, a middle-aged loser. Old Nick never has allowed Jack to leave the shed. Joy, kidnapped by Old Nick when she was seventeen, hasn’t been outside the room since then. Old Nick began using Joy for sex right from the start. He is Jack’s biological father.
The shed is habitable and sits behind Old Nick’s home in Akron, Ohio. It has running water, electricity, heat, a tiny kitchen and bathroom, a bed, a television and a few books. It has no wall windows, only a skylight. Its one door is thick and equipped with a passcode-protected lock for which only Old Nick knows the numbers. Old Nick visits the shed to deliver food and to have sex. Escape? Little chance — Old Nick is crafty and scary. This is a bleak set-up, one in which only the strong-willed and resilient, such as Joy, would survive.
Jack knows of no existence beyond his prison. To Jack, the room and his mother have been reality, nothing much else. He doesn’t realize that the people and other images that he sees on television have a connection to realms beyond the screen. Yet he is a happy and playful child. Joy has done miraculous work nurturing Jack under cruelly limiting conditions. Raising him with love is all that matters to Joy. And shielding him from Old Nick.
I’m not spoiling the plot by saying that Joy begins to explain their plight to Jack when he turns five, and that light bulbs slowly brighten in his mind. I won’t say more about the directions the story takes. Giving away too much about such a quality movie wouldn’t be fair.
But I will say this. Room examines the human plight fastidiously. Burnt doesn’t, which is sort of OK because it never meant to. But Burnt would have been a better movie if it had tried a little harder. Somewhere in the middle of Burnt one of the characters throws out a line or two about Adam Jones having had a very rough upbringing. Nothing more is made of this in Burnt, but probably it’s the root cause of chef Jones’ discontent.
I’ll say it again. Love, the key to life.
(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)
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