A Decently Joyful Story

It’s an understatement to remark that ours is a perplexing species. Yes, most people might be pretty good at heart for the most part. But you’d hardly know that by the wars that have raged in one place or another throughout recorded and, I have zero doubt, prerecorded history. The latest nightmare, of course, is the Russian assault on Ukraine. It is only one of many post-Second World War examples of cruelty and of refusal, inability even, to live harmoniously. Horrible conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are others. The Russia/Ukraine situation is by far the most worrisome, needless to say, because a f*cking asshole with nuclear weapons at his command, good ol’ Vladimir, is its lead villain.

Okay, I needed to get that off my chest. And seeing that I’m not in the mood to bum myself out any further, nor anyone else, I now will pivot sharply and head into my comfort zone. Sitting there patiently are a song I first heard in February and a television series that my wife Sandy and I watched earlier this month. I kind of have to write about them. Why? Well, they brought me joy. And I don’t take joy lightly. When I experience it I thank my lucky stars, because joy, though weightless and invisible, is a sweet substance that we require at least now and then. Joy helps us feel whole. It is one of the finest things in life.

First up is Broken Heart, a tune by The Fiestas, a New Jersey vocal quartet (and at times a quintet) that inhabited the worlds of doo wop and rhythm and blues. I’m certain that just about everyone knows this group, if not by name then by their song So Fine, which was released in late 1958 and which I love. So Fine became a smash hit a few months later and receives substantial airplay to this day.

Little did I know that The Fiestas were more than So Fine. Little did I know, that is, until one night last month when a SiriusXM radio channel delivered Broken Heart to our ears while Sandy and I were at home having dinner. Man, in an instant I was hooked. I stopped chewing to let the song give me some thrills. And, via YouTube, I’ve listened to Broken Heart a bunch of times since that evening.

Subsequent research taught me that The Fiestas, whose career lasted into the late 1970s, scored a medium-sized hit with Broken Heart in 1962. Which is why I’m surprised I’d never heard it before. Such a song! Sure, its exuberance belies the warnings about love that are embedded in the lyrics, but who cares about that incongruity? I mean, you don’t run across singing as majestic as this very often. Lead vocalist Tommy Bullock soars, hitting notes so fluidly, so gleefully, he almost brings tears to my eyes. And his partners wrap their voices around his with precision and power. I’m listening to Broken Heart as I type this sentence. Am I feeling joyful? Damn straight! Without further ado, here’s Broken Heart:

Let’s move on now, joyfully, to Anxious People, a Netflix mini-series (six episodes of about 30 minutes each) set and produced in Sweden and based on a novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman. Backman, by the way, is famous, having penned the international bestseller A Man Called Ove.

Sandy and I knew almost nothing about Anxious People before dialing it up, and are pleased as punch that we took the leap. It’s a whimsical tale centered around a group of folks who find themselves held hostage, in a loose sense, by an inept bank robber, and the police investigation that follows. I’m tempted to divulge a whole lot about Anxious People, multi-layered and fascinating as it is. For me to do so, though, would be a crime on my part, as telling too much would spoil the show for anyone interested in giving it a try.

So, I’ll add but a few more handfuls of words. To begin, are there flaws in the series? I, who can be picky to a fault, didn’t find any. The plot lines unfold and interweave deliciously, and the characters, nearly all of whom are laden with foibles and self-doubts, ring true. What we have here, then, is a gentle story that warmed the hell out of my heart. When the final episode reached its end I was filled with joy that carried over to the next day.

Boys and girls, that’s a wrap. I’d be happy to learn about who or what has given you joy of late. Till next time!

A Doors-Filled Story (Fourth Edition)

A lovely day it was indeed. The Sun beamed and gleamed. The skies, nary a cloud within them, were an expanse of blue at its finest. Unexpectedly mild for winter (51°F/11°C), a steady breeze on hand to keep me refreshed, the afternoon of February the ninth presented to me a perfect opportunity to go out and peruse doors in Hatboro, a town in the Philadelphia burbs that’s a couple of miles from the one I call home. I grabbed the opportunity.

Doors? Yes, doors are a favored subject for a fair number of WordPress scribes, including, occasionally, yours truly. I’ve written about them three times before. And, it should be noted, the hub on WordPress for all things doors is the Thursday Doors project run by Dan Antion on his No Facilities blog. So, if you click here you will be directed to Dan’s handsome site, where links to the writings of and photographs by doors enthusiasts may be found.

As I drove to Hatboro I was confident about what I’d find, because I’ve been there a multitude of times over the years — to shop, to dine, to stretch my legs on its sidewalks. It’s a down-to-earth community with pleasant residential blocks and a commercial area that, though hanging in there, has seen better days. Sure, maybe a unique or snazzy door or two awaited me. But no more than that, I figured.

And you know what? I was right. Of the hundreds of doors that passed before my eyes that afternoon as I wandered around many of Hatboro’s streets, alleys and parking areas, nearly all were of one standard style or another and also plain as can be in the color department.

And you know what else? I was absolutely fine with that, as I’ve long believed there is value and beauty in just about everything if I look hard enough and, when needed, adjust my way of thinking. After all, who am I not to admire the seemingly ordinary? I mean, I understand what it’s like to be ignored. I ain’t exactly Bradley Cooper when it comes to looks, you dig, proof of which is the fact that I can count on two hands, probably one, the number of times in my life that a girl has given me the eye. And those occurrences were decades ago. Shit, now that I’m pretty damn deep into my senior citizen era, there ain’t a chance in the world that I’ll ever again be gazed upon with interest, unless it’s by somebody working on a doctoral thesis about old farts. Boo hoo, man! Boo f*cking hoo!

Ordinary and admirable
Ordinary and very admirable

Among the “ordinary” portals that made a real impression on me in Hatboro, two of whose portraits I’ve included above, my top pick is the one identified by a nice big 3A. It more or less stopped me in my tracks because, I now realize in hindsight, its grey-green coloration struck an oceanic chord within me. I’m an ocean lover, and over the years I’ve seen the Atlantic’s waters take on a hue similar to 3A’s. Plus, how could I not fall for a door with a newspaper sticking out of its mail slot, like a tongue looking for attention?

Still, there were two doors that I preferred to 3A, both of which struck me as being a step or two above “ordinary”: a swinging door made of wood planks and metal, and the front door to a house. The latter, alive in orangey-red and decorated with a display of shadows that dazzled, easily garnered the gold medal in the doors competition that day.

In honor of Hatboro’s très cool red door, I’m going to end these proceedings by presenting an equally cool song titled — what else? — The Red Door. It was recorded in 1952 by a group led by tenor saxophonist John “Zoot” Sims and was released the next year. Zoot, who co-wrote the tune with Gerry Mulligan, takes the first sax solo. Mulligan, by the way, doesn’t appear on the recording.

Sims, a hell of a musician, was a presence in the jazz world for about 35 years (he died in 1985, having made it to only age 59). I had chance after chance to see him perform in New York City clubs during the 1970s and 80s, but, stupidly, let them pass me by. I’ve regretted those decisions ever since.

Here then is Zoot and his compadres on the lovely, swinging tune that The Red Door is. Enjoy.

A Gloomy And Colorful Story

Oh, to be back in the hippie era, that golden time when I was young and when open minds and open arms were, for many, the order of the day. Alas, it is long gone. Now, here in the USA, there is an abundance of folks who are anything but welcoming. In fact, one of their primary missions is to deprive others of basic rights required for democracy to survive, let alone prosper. I find that truth hard to believe and even harder to understand. A sad example occurred in January: the banding together of every Republican Party member of the United States Senate to doom the passage of a bill that would have helped protect voting rights. Would any reasonably moral and honorable person vote against such legislation? They wouldn’t. Those senators, troublingly, are nowhere near moral and honorable.

The gloomy morning in question.

Yup, gloomy describes the state of affairs in my country. And that word also describes the recent morning (a few days before the voting rights bill met its demise) that sparked the writing of this story. Grey as hell, not to mention damp and chilly, it was bringing me down. So, I hopped into my car and drove to Willow Grove Park, a three-story indoor shopping mall near my home in the Philadelphia burbs. I was in need of a barrage of color jolts not obtainable, for the most part, within my house, where earth tones and soft blues predominate.  Not that I have anything against those hues. Au contraire. An overly tense f*cker, I’d be even more on edge without their calming influence.

I made the right decision, as the mall turned out to be precisely what the doctor ordered. I walked around for 45 minutes, happily permitting window and merchandise displays and an arcade popping with multi-hued energy to brighten my mood.

Bold yellows, reds and oranges, exploding at elite levels as only they can, were all over the place. At one store’s windows, pink and lavender, working together in sweet harmony, seriously caught my eye. And I was captivated by the inner and outer glow of handbags that, two minutes into my trek, I spotted on a table in Bloomingdale’s department store. Three in cherry and two in green, the accessories projected a self-confidence that I was in awe of. Shit, I’d be delighted to be half as cool and enticing as they are.

Colors are powerful, for sure. They influence our thoughts and emotions, our very states of being. And sometimes they inspire the creation of excellent music. The world would be a lesser place, for instance, if Little Green, a song by Joni Mitchell, were not in it. The same holds true for Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Those tunes reside on the melancholy side of the spectrum. What I’m in the mood for right now, however, just as I was when I headed to the mall, are some strong jolts. What’s more, I want the jolts to emit lots of steam. Overly tense f*ckers need stimuli of that nature now and then, don’t they? Damn straight they do.

Well, there is no shortage of recordings that deliver the goods. One of the best is Little Red Corvette, by the late, great Prince. Released in 1983, it recounts an encounter with a lady who loves to give and to receive.

And then there’s Devil With A Blue Dress On, written by Shorty Long and Willam Stevenson. Most folks, including me, are unfamiliar with those composers, but nearly everyone has heard the recording of their song, from 1966, by Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels. It gets my juices flowing every time I hear it. By the way, Mitch and the boys mixed Devil With A Blue Dress On with Good Golly, Miss Molly, two songs seamlessly becoming one.

The party’s starting! Here are the tunes. Feel free to comment on them, politics, democracy, colors, or anything you like. Till next time!

Scenes That Caught My Eye, Tunes That Caught My Ear

Two years ago, due to a health issue that required attention, I upped the number of walks that I take. I did so because, as everybody knows, the medical experts among us are convinced that regular exercise can improve the functioning of our internal machinery, thus extending our lives. Well, since then I’ve gone a-walkin’ hundreds of times, as I’m not in any rush to bid adieu to the polluted planet that we call home.

A lot of the walks, for convenience’s sake, have taken place in my neighborhood, which is in a town a few miles from Philadelphia. Though I like my house, which is as cuddly as a toddler, I’m totally aware that my hood ain’t exactly the most exciting locale in the world. And that’s putting it mildly. Let’s face it, when you’ve seen one suburban block you’ve pretty much seen them all.

So, to break up the monotony I sometimes head to one or another nearby village when a pounding-the-pavement session is in order. Yeah, they’ve got more than their share of typical residential blocks too. But, unlike my town, they also contain old-timey business sections, always of interest, not to mention the real possibility of unexpected sights. The other day, with all that in mind, I hopped in my car and drove three miles to Hatboro. I was psyched to stretch my legs there and to see what I would see.

I spent an hour scouring a good bit of Hatboro, exercising ye olde legs more than I had expected to. I was into it, my eyes looking up, down and all around, in search of this, that or the other thing as I strode along. Man, I felt good, breathing freely and fully, and admiring the nip in the air in addition to the sights. Importantly, I also made sure that my phone’s camera was ready for action.

In the end, I pressed the camera button about 20 times, documenting some of the types of scenes that I’m prone to immortalizing. Those with strong contrasts of colors, for instance, or with lines and planes that intersect wildly. As I’m also drawn to well-proportioned minimalistic configurations, I was brought up short by the section of a parking lot whose three yellow metal posts peacefully guard a small building. It’s plain, but I like it.

What’s more, when I’m in the right mood, as I apparently was in Hatboro, I get a kick from the absurd. On the grounds of a funeral home, of all places, a dog statue rocking its woolen scarf like a fashion model fit into that category just fine.

The walk in Hatboro was pretty swell, but a few days later I heard two songs that pleased me far more. That’s not surprising, considering that music has the potential to awe and transport like nothing else. Sure, literature might blow you away, as might art, as might sex, as might nature’s splendors. For me, though, music trumps them all. Not every piece of music, of course. Hardly. But when a musical composition gels with me just so, off I go into the stratosphere, riding gently on the wings of a most mysterious power.

That’s what happened when B-Side, by Leon Bridges and Khruangbin, visited my eardrums. Whoosh! In no time I was airborne. Later that day, Cautionary Tale, by singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc, caused the same to occur.

Lyrically, B-Side is a love song and Cautionary Tale is the musings of a guy who has lost his way in the world. But the words of both numbers, which could use some tidying-up anyway, hardly matter to me. What does matter are the steady grooves that embrace and won’t let go, the dancing interplay between the instruments, and the fact that Bridges’ and LeBlanc’s voices are at ease in the ethers. In other words, each of these tunes has a feel that I can’t ignore.

B-Side came out this month and is part of a continuing collaboration between Bridges, who has immersed himself in soul and other musical genres since breaking onto the scene in 2015, and the trance-rock trio with the unpronounceable name. Cautionary Tale reached the marketplace in 2016. It gets played now and then on radio stations that I listen to, proving that I’m not the only one who finds it worthy. I’d be happy to hear what you think about these recordings. Or about exercising, photography or any damn thing at all. Shit, I’m not particular!

 

Woman’s And Man’s Best Friend

Some may say that I never really had a pet, but that isn’t true. I mean, when I was a lad, many decades ago, I owned small turtles and fish. They’re pets, right? I liked them and took care of them. And maybe they liked me, though that of course is something I wasn’t able to determine. Still, despite my diligent efforts to make their lives healthy and comfortable, the wee f*ckers bit the dust left and right. It was disappointing to know that the turtles preferred riding the train bound for reptile heaven more than hanging out in a shoe box in my bedroom, but what can you do? In regard to the fish, all I can say is that their main talent was jumping out of their tank and landing on the floor when nobody was around. I guess you’ve heard that fish don’t do well when not in water.

As for significant pets — cats and dogs — well, I’ve never lived with one, not when growing up nor during the many years since I left my parents’ home. I believe that this places me in a tiny minority. And I doubt if I’ll ever join the majority. At this point I’m way too old, most likely, ever to take the plunge.

Here’s the thing, however: Though cats aren’t my favorite creatures, I dig dogs. Certain dogs anyway — those that are smart, playful and able to size up situations. When you look deep into the eyes of the ones that meet said description, you realize that their essence isn’t much more than a stone’s or a stick’s throw away from yours. Yeah, dogs without a doubt can be cool.

That fact was driven home to me last month when I read a book that I think would hit the sweet spots of anyone who owns or otherwise admires woman’s and man’s best friend. Its title is A Dog’s Life. Supposedly written by the late Peter Mayle, I adored it. (Mayle was a Brit who, when middle-aged, moved to a small town in France. There he penned A Year In Provence, a best-selling memoir released in 1989. It made him famous. You can read more about him by clicking here.)

A Dog’s Life, which entered the marketplace in 1995, was my first encounter with Mayle. To create this book, he placed a pen and pad before his treasured dog Boy, instructing Boy to tell it like it is and was. Somehow Boy was able to manipulate the writing implement, producing an autobiography that goes down as easily as a glass of iced tea on a sweltering summer day. Man, it ain’t right that Mayle took credit for Boy’s work!

Boy, whose high opinion of himself permeates A Dog’s Life, is a fount of slippery wisdom and of cutting remarks. Here is a paragraph, one of dozens I could cite, that displays his self-assurance and brain power. And, yes, his coolness.

If, like me, you have a logical turn of mind, a self-indulgent nature, and a frequently dormant conscience, there is a certain aspect of human behavior that can put an immense strain on the patience. It’s spoken of, always in sanctimonious tones, as moderation — not too much of this, not too much of that, diet and abstinence and restraint, colonic irrigation, cold baths before breakfast, and regular readings of morally uplifting tracts. You must have come across all this and worse if you have any friends from California. Personally, I’m a great believer in the philosophy of live and let live, as long as you keep your proclivities to yourself. Follow the road of denial if that’s what you want, and all I’ll say is more fool you and spare me the details.

Boy and I, had we known one another, would have become pals. Of that I’m certain. In any case, I thank him for writing one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years.

Girls and boys, it’s time for me to go. Somewhat fittingly, I shall leave you with two musical numbers of the canine variety. The first, a song called Dog, played on the radio, totally appropriately, on a day during which I was reading A Dog’s Life. Damn good, it was written and recorded a few years ago by Charlie Parr, a not-at-all-famous singer-songwriter and guitar picker. Another singer-songwriter and guitar picker, the mega-famous Neil Young, also composed an ode to a dog. Dating from 1992, his Old King is an excellent companion to Parr’s work. Here they are. Thanks for your attention. Goodbye till next time!

A Pretty Scene, A Pawpaw, A Song

Man, for a number of days the thoughts and themes that I’d been considering for this essay were as uncongealed as undercooked oatmeal. Eventually and fortunately, though, things began to come together when the word comforting eased its way into my mind. This occurred while I was looking over the photos that I’d taken while exploring Glenside, a town in the Philadelphia suburbs, a couple of weeks ago. To my great surprise, one of them reached out to me far more than any of the others did. It made me say aah. It made whatever stress I was feeling at that moment go bye-bye. The bottom line is that I found the scene in the photo to be very comforting.

What is it about the image that pleases me so? For one thing its colors are happy to be with one another. They get along splendidly. And the quiet reflection from across the street, in the door glass, adds to the sense of comraderie. I hadn’t even noticed the reflection when I walked up to the door to snap a picture of the Est. 2003 sign inches above it, for it was signs of one sort or another that I was seeking out and photographing that day in Glenside.

All in all, the photo strikes me as a representation of peace, warmth and tolerance. And if there’s anything in our little ol’ world that I’m totally down with, it’s those three commodities. I suppose that I’m reading a whole lot more into this picture than I might, but so be it. I’ll take my comforting moments when and where I can.

Moving right along: three years ago I wrote about my fruitless search for a pawpaw (click here if you’d like to read it). Thrice in that article I posed a question that maybe is on the tip of your tongue right now. Namely, “so, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?”

Well, it’s the fruit of pawpaw trees, which grow in various parts of the USA. There was a time when pawpaws were eaten fairly commonly. But those days are in the distant past. Though the pawpaw does retain pockets of popularity, there ain’t exactly shitloads of trees producing them in the States.

One thing about the pawpaw is that it is tropical in appearance, papaya-ish, not at all what you’d expect from an indigenous North American tree. I can confirm this because, astonishingly, my long, long search for a pawpaw ended successfully earlier this month. I have my friend Dave to thank for that, as he clued me in to the fact that a food co-op in my area had pawpaws in stock.

To the co-op I soon made my way, arriving back home an hour later with a large pawpaw so soft that a moderate squeeze would have punctured it. I purchased this specimen when a produce department worker at the co-op assured me that it was at the peak of ripeness, rather than overripe.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

I damn well wasn’t disappointed when, shortly thereafter, the pawpaw’s innards entered my mouth. The fruit possessed a variety of flavors, all subtle in intensity, reminding me of banana, honeydew and cantaloupe. But what I was taken with more than anything was its texture. The pawpaw’s flesh was firm yet creamy, pretty close in consistency, and in appearance for that matter, to the vanilla pudding that my mother made for my family frequently when I was growing up. I always loved her vanilla pudding. Because of that connection, the pawpaw worked its way into my heart. Eating the pawpaw was a comforting experience for me. Very comforting.

Moving right along again: I heard a wonderful song by The Wallflowers recently. The tune, Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More, comes from their album Exit Wounds, which was released a few months ago. Jakob Dylan (Bob’s son), is The Wallflowers’ lead singer and leader, and composed every song on the album.

The lyrics of Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More ruminate about the loss of mojo and direction, a circumstance that many people grapple with at one time or another. But it’s not so much the words that get to me. Rather, it’s the recording’s feel. I mean, this song hit my sweetest of spots the moment I heard it. I fell for the guitar lines intermingling like the best of friends; the steady, strong drumming; the hypnotic melody; Jakob’s straightforward vocals that mean what they say.

Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More comforts me, takes me in its arms and sweeps me away. What more could I ask for?

It Was A Sad Day When Charlie Watts Passed Away

© Ursula Düren/dpa

The 24th of August, 2021 was a sad day for millions of people, mostly baby boomers such as myself, because Charlie Watts, the drummer of The Rolling Stones, left this mortal coil on that date. I felt as if I was gut-punched when I read the news. And I shed a few tears too. The backbone and heartbeat of one of my favorite bands, he was in my life for nearly 60 years, though of course I didn’t know him. And now he’s gone.

Charlie Watts lived to the nicely ripe old age of 80. Still, his death came unexpectedly, at least to the public, seeing that he had been gearing up, initially, to join his fellow Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood) on a stadium tour of the States this autumn.

But in early August, about two weeks after the tour was announced, he bowed out due to health issues. With his OK, a temporary replacement drummer was hired. The expectation was for Charlie, after a period of recuperation, to be back on his drum stool next year and beyond, pounding away on the skins and cymbals. And why think otherwise? I mean, the Stones seemed to be eternal, powering down the rock and roll highway since the early 1960s.

Well, the remaining Stones, though shaken to their bones I’m sure, are going ahead with the tour (it begins on September 26). This doesn’t seem right to me. Charlie Watts was a fixture, an icon. Cool, calm and collected, he was as important to the band as Jagger and Richards. Can The Rolling Stones really be The Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts in their future? The answer, I believe, is a profound no.

Charlie’s passing nearly marks the end of an era for me, which is not a happy realization. That’s because he was one of my musical heroes, a direct link to my young and innocent days. Few of my musical heroes remain among us. What’s more, his death stopped me in my tracks, causing me to ponder a subject that I don’t enjoy. Namely, the final curtain. My final curtain, to be precise.

Yeah, we all know that our ends are coming. Their arrival dates are up in the air, sure, but arrive they eventually will. Yet, you know what? As old as I’ve become — I’m well into my 70s — I still find it kind of hard to believe that my days are diminishing, that there are far more grains of sand at the bottom of my hourglass than there are at its top. Shit, I’d like to go on forever. That would be cool, especially if famine, violence, intolerance, etc. weren’t part of the picture. Alas, the game is designed way differently. What a f*cking, f*cking drag.

And we all also know that we should make good use of our time, an irreplaceable commodity. Helping others and being kind, loving and trustworthy are paramount. Obviously. Absolutely. And not far behind, for some of us, is grooving in the arms of music, something that I’ve been doing for a long, long time and have no plans to stop. It’s liberating and mind-expanding, taking me to planes that I don’t otherwise visit. Charlie Watts has aided me in this pursuit over the years.

On that note I’ll leave you with a beautiful song, released in 1974, from The Rolling Stones catalog: Time Waits For No One, a Jagger and Richards composition. Time Waits For No One laments life’s fleetingness, life’s finiteness. Even so, Jagger, Richards and Watts , who were young when they and the other Stones at the time (Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor) put the song on wax, probably would have been amazed back then to learn that their common journey was destined to continue for decades more (Wyman and Taylor left the group ages ago. Wood signed up in 1975). As you listen, focus on Charlie Watts’ drum work. It is precise and gripping. He and his mates will carry you away.

An Artsy Walk Through The Mall On A Hot-As-Hell Day

It was hot as hell in my area (the suburbs of Philadelphia) on the 30th of June. I’d gone for walks on each of the two previous days, days that weren’t exactly on the mild side temperature-wise either. But June 30 was a different ball game, one of those in which a mere minute in the sun causes sweat to pour from your face and back of your neck like lava from a mountain that is experiencing gastric distress.

However, I, an old guy who for the last year and a half has been very diligent about exercising regularly, was not about to not go for a walk. A walk was totally doable, because I live close to Willow Grove Park, a three-story, air-conditioned indoor shopping mall. Thus, in late morning I headed to the mall, to pound its avenues and corridors in A/C’ed comfort.

I like spending time now and then at Willow Grove Park, even though I rarely buy anything there. Architecturally it looks real good, and I’m always amazed by the copious amounts of eye-catching wares for sale. Plus, I almost always cross paths with some lovely ladies.

And I find Willow Grove Park to be quite an artistic environment, hardly different from art museums. For example, many merchandise displays within the stores are beautiful and creative. Even more so are the graphic artworks — posters and other printed creations — in merchants’ windows and free-standing elsewhere. Ergo, on June 30 I made it my mission, in addition to stretching my legs, to examine the state of affairs of graphic art at the mall.

I was drawn to any number of pieces. They ranged from the minimalistic (the large Sale signs, in flamboyant red, that bordered the H&M clothing store), to the complex and futuristic, qualities belonging to a poster hung within an Aerie shop.

Not surprisingly, many of the works featured human faces and, usually, additional body parts. More often than not, these creations were photography-based, but their painterly counterparts were on display here and there too. In the face/body category, the one that I found myself staring at the most was the group shot of five youngsters. It adorned the Gap Kids store. If everyone got along as well as those individuals do, the world would be pretty close to paradisiacal. And I was entranced by the two girls, their heads as close as canned sardines, aglow in a window of the Primark establishment.

A few hours after I arrived back home I began to mull over my mall experience, and damn if I didn’t feel slighted more than a bit. Shit, I realized that every human pictured at the mall was somewhere between young and the cusp of middle-age. How come someone like me wasn’t on display? I mean, what do companies have against male septuagenarians whose hairlines are receding faster than Greenland’s glaciers and whose faces are peppered with weird f*cking growths that dermatologists probably don’t even have names for? It ain’t right, I tell you! Those in power are going to hear from me!

But before they hear from me, I will bring this narrative to a close. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. And give a listen, if you’re in the mood, to mall-istic songs that I discovered recently. After all, it’s not every day that you encounter music inspired by shopping malls.

The first recording, Let’s Go To The Mall, is by Robin Sparkles, a stage name once used by Robin Scherbatsky, who is a character in the television series How I Met Your Mother (the series ended in 2014). Cobie Smulders, the actress who played Sparkles/Scherbatsky, provides the lead vocals on this pop music confection. Did you get all of that? Not sure if I did.

In the second tune, The Last Mall, Steely Dan uses a mall metaphorically to comment on humankind’s fate. Such headiness is only to be expected, of course, as the brains behind Steely Dan — Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker — were not your everyday song-writing team. The Last Mall, sardonic and clothed in the blues, paints an uneasy picture.

Beautiful Indeed

Well, I’ve been real tempted lately to pen an essay about the repressive, heads-up-their-asses people in my country who continue to believe in demagogic, riot-inciting Donald Trump and embrace his outrageous lies about the 2020 election having been stolen from him.

On the other hand, I haven’t been real tempted lately to have my blood pressure head into the stratosphere. So, I’ll stay calm by moving in my semi-natural direction. Towards the light, you dig. What follows, therefore, are a few words about beauty, a quality I found a couple of weeks ago in, among other things, a book, a song and some flowers. Away we go!

First up, the book: Local Girls is a collection of stories, by Alice Hoffman, about Gretel Samuelson and her small circle of relatives and friends. The stories are presented chronologically, and appeared in various publications before being gathered and published in one volume in 1999.

Not exactly a novel (some stories are narrated by Gretel, the others are in the third-person), but close enough, Local Girls follows Gretel from age 11 or 12 into her mid-20s. It’s set in suburban Long Island (which is near New York City), and is not the happiest of tales. Drug addiction and serious illness are among the book’s prime themes.

Nevertheless, drollness permeates the proceedings, partly by way of the sharp observations and bon mots of Gretel, her best friend Jill, Gretel’s mother Franny, and Gretel’s adult cousin Margot. Overall, Local Girls struck me as hard-as-nails realistic, despite the inclusion, unnecessary in my opinion, of some mystical occurrences. (Hoffman, I gather, is known for doing this in her works.) The book took me by the arm and then spoke intimately to me. It is damn well alive.

What got to me more than anything about Local Girls is the absolute beauty of much of its language. Time after time Hoffman took my breath away. Before ending this short discussion of Local Girls, I’ll leave you with three examples of Hoffman’s way with words.

It was a bad summer, and we all knew it. We liked to phrase it that way, as if what was happening was an aberrationa single season of pain and doubtinstead of all-out informing people that our lives were falling apart, plain and simple as pie.

She had been thinking about sorrow for so long she was amazed to hear the sound of love. What a foreign language it was. How odd to an ear unused to such things.

The streetlamps cast a heavy glow, the light of a dream you’re not quite finished waking from.

Yes, Hoffman has more than got the touch.

Now for the song: I’ve seen Brandi Carlile on a couple of TV shows and heard her music pretty often on the radio. I think she’s good but certainly not great. However, her recording Save A Part Of Yourself, is another matter. To me, it’s fab. The song, which Carlile co-wrote and sings lead on, was released in 2012.

Save Part Of Yourself concerns a love relationship that, though ended, has not been forgotten by one of its two parties. She hopes that her ex will not throw away memories of her. Such a lovely composition, so tender and imbued with longing. Yet, it also sparkles. That mandolin riff that enters five seconds into the tune, those handclaps, the joyful whoo-hoo-hoos. I for one cannot resist them.

Save Part Of Yourself’s main message, I think, is that remembrance can help us heal and make us better individuals. Who would argue with that? Here it is, following which we’ll turn our attention to flowers.

The day in which I am described as a knowledgeable identifier of flora isn’t about to arrive any time soon. Yeah, on a good day I’m able to look at a tulip and say, “Yup, that’s a tulip.” Ditto for a pine tree and a maple tree. But my scope doesn’t extend all too far beyond that. Still, that doesn’t stop me from going out to admire nature’s wonders. Hell, I’d be heartbroken if I couldn’t.

And I’m glad when my botanical expertise expands. Such as when I learned last month that a flowering plant I was gazing at during a visit to New Hope, Pennsylvania, a funky, former artists colony to which visitors often throng, was an example of a hydrangea bush. The plant impressed me. Thus, while walking and driving around my town a few days later I kept my eyes open for hydrangeas. And I found some, photographing two of them. Hydrangeas, I believe, were at the height of their flowering powers in my region (greater Philadelphia) at the time that I took these portraits. The flowers are sincerely beautiful.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Mucho gracias.)

Bruce Springsteen’s Bringing Me To Broadway!

What can you say about Bruce Springsteen that hasn’t already been said? Not much, that’s for damn sure. The guy, after all, is an icon. An idol. And for good reasons: he’s talented as hell, smart as a whip, down to earth, and has been working his tail off in the music biz for over 50 years. Shit, his work ethic is unparalleled. And it hasn’t waned. He’s 71 years old, for crying out loud, yet has more energy than just about any teenager.

A scene from Springsteen On Broadway (photo by Rob DeMartin)

His latest project? He’s about to revive Springsteen On Broadway. An intimate one-man performance in which Bruce sings some of his songs and tells stories about his life, the show originally ran from October 2017 to December 2018 and was a huge success. When it reopens on June 26 at the St. James Theater, it will be the first Broadway production to be staged since COVID shut down New York’s theaters 15 months ago. Bruce is leading the charge to help the city return to its glory days!

Dig this: I personally know Springsteen a little bit. That’s because, unbelievably and from out of the f*cking blue, he showed up at my door in mid-2017, offering to make me — a nonentity in possession of zero musical talent — a member of his mighty E Street Band. “You’re shitting us, right, Neil?” I hear a chorus of doubters ask. Yo, ye of little faith, would I lie? You can read all about it by clicking here.

Alas, a band member I never became. I would have if the group had gone on tour, but tour it didn’t. Springsteen On Broadway and coronavirus saw to that. As a result, I was certain that Bruce had forgotten all about me.

Wrong! When my phone rang one evening early this month, none other than The Boss was on the other end.

“My man! Bruce here. It’s been a long, long while since we talked.”

“Bruce? Hey, it’s great to hear from you. How have you been?”

“Good, man. Real good. I’m always busy, you know. Wrote four songs this morning, for instance. They flowed out of me like a sweet mountain stream. Then I practiced the guitar for an hour. After that I was on the phone all afternoon with the director and stage crew of the Broadway show I’m bringing back in a few weeks. How about you? What have you done today?”

My throat seized up for a second. What had I, a stumbler through life, done? Well, as is often the case, taking a superb dump was the only thing that had invigorated me at all. Some might be afraid to reveal such an intimate detail to others, but I count myself as one of the brave. Bruce wasn’t the least bit fazed by what I told him.

“Neil, I know where you’re coming from. Once in a while I go through uninspired spells too. Listen, I feel bad that you haven’t gotten a chance to perform with my band. I want to make it up to you. What I have to offer would get you off your unmotivated ass, other than when you’re taking dumps, of course, and put you smack in the middle of the spotlight.”

“Does this have something to do with Springsteen On Broadway?” I asked.

“Indeed it does. Neil, I want to tweak the show a bit. Mostly it’ll remain the same — heartfelt, quietly powerful — but I’m going to add an interlude where I tell a couple of drummer jokes. The audience will love the change of pace. Here’s the deal: You’ll wander onto the stage right after I finish singing Thunder Road. I’ll introduce you and announce that you’re my straight man. Then I’ll say, ‘Neil, what do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend?’ You’ll shrug your shoulders to indicate that you don’t know. ‘Homeless!’ I’ll yell. Next I’ll ask you, ‘What’s the difference between a drummer and a savings bond?’ You’ll shrug again. I’ll bellow, ‘Only one of them matures and earns money!'”

“The crowd, I’m positive, will be roaring with laughter,” he continued, “and as they do you’ll bow and make your exit. Sound good?”

What? That’s it? Bruce, how about giving me at least a couple of lines of dialogue? I mean, I’ve never been on stage before, but I know I could handle that.”

“Baby steps, brother. Baby steps. For now, this is the best I can do,” Bruce replied. “And it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. You never know where this kind of exposure might take you. Are you on board?”

Only a fool would have answered no.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. By the way, in 2018 a performance of Springsteen On Broadway was filmed for Netflix. If you have Netflix, do yourself a favor and watch the show if you haven’t yet. Springsteen thinks and feels deeply. He’s something else.)