An Old-School Story (Four Great Songs)

How many good musical recordings have been made over the years? Man, coming up with an answer to that one is a tall, tall order. First of all, there are the millions upon millions of records you’d have to listen to. And then there’s this sticky point: Who’s to say what good is?

Still, I’m undeterred! I’ve placed the query on my TBDBIDBPL (To Be Determined Before I Die, But Probably Later) list, which now has 46,786 entries on it. I’ll take that list with me to my grave, where I intend to continue working on it. What, like I’ll have anything better to do?

Getting back to my questions: You know, some days you just plain luck out when it comes to hearing music that rings your bell just right, even within a really compact amount of time. That’s precisely what happened to me on a recent Saturday afternoon as I backed my car out of the driveway. The Hyundai, feeling parched, was pleading with me to inject some refined liquid down its maw. It was going on and on, making a big deal out of nothing. Hell, cars, like humans, sure as shit can be emotionally needy. “Yeah, yeah,” I said not so soothingly, “where do you think we’re headed?” And continued on my way to my favorite gas station.

The gas station is a measly 0.9 miles from my house. If I lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the trip to the station, by car, might take two minutes. But I live in suburban Philadelphia, which isn’t any better traffic-wise than living in just about any part of The City Of Brotherly Love itself. In my little town, traffic lights and stop signs abound. What’s more, a few blocks from my house are railroad tracks upon which passenger trains do their thing throughout much of the day. It’s not easy to avoid meeting railroad track gates in the down position. They seem to be down a whole, whole lot.

The point that I’m making, and it’s not exactly a genius observation, is that in our day and age it can take longer to get from Point A to Point B than you’d like. Normally I wouldn’t have been thrilled that my mini-trip to the gas station used up 10 minutes of my life, crawling along as I was on the first leg of the expedition, then coming to a total standstill at horizontal railroad track gates, then crawling along some more before pulling into the gas station.

But I wasn’t mad at all. In fact I was cheerful and loose as a goose, because I spent those 10 minutes bopping to four mighty fine songs. They came to me consecutively on Soul Town, a great station on SiriusXM satellite radio. It’s a good day when I Thank You (by Sam & Dave), First I Look At The Purse (The Contours), Bernadette (The Four Tops), and James Brown’s Hot Pants Part 1 enter your life. A very good day.

Now, I’ve decided not to devote much wordage to the beauty of these songs or to their artists. I figure that nearly everyone who reads my stories has heard these recordings any number of times and knows of their majesty. And if that’s not true for you, then you’ve got yourself some livin’ and learnin’ to do! The numbers are old-school classics (they came out between 1964 and 1971) and are guaranteed to get you reeling and rocking, which, generally speaking, are excellent ways to behave.

I listen to music of all different sorts from all different eras, but I never stray too far from the kind of fare that Soul Town broadcasts: soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. Funny thing is that I’ve gotten much deeper into these genres over the last eight or so years than ever before. I always liked them aplenty, but I’m a real nut about them now. Superb singing; fabulous arrangements; beats that’ll send you to the sky (and maybe to the chiropractor) if the tune is a heavy workout, or make your heart melt if it’s a ballad; and strong melodies. What more could you want? And yeah, I know that Hot Pants Part 1 isn’t blessed in the melody department, but that’s not what that tune’s all about. As James Brown says: One two, one two three, uh!!

So, get down while the getting down’s good, girls and boys. The four songs here are anything but of the ballad variety. Yeah, baby, I can see you, now you’ve got it, keep on going, c’mon, c’mon, oh yes you’re smokin’!

I’m seconds away from saying over and out, as this here is a piece whose main purpose, I suppose, is simple and clear: to set cyberspace a-tingling a bit with songs that have what it takes. You bet we’re lucky to live in a time when it’s oh so easy to bathe luxuriously in terrific music. Terrific music is all around us, only a click or a tap away.

Over and out.

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Dinah, Sarah, Abbey And Michelle: A Snowy And Jazzy Story

Three weeks ago, we here in my section of the greater Philadelphia region were blessed with a storm that deposited a foot of heavy, messy snow. Ooh la la! I spent four hours, spread over three days, hurling the white stuff off of my walkways, driveway and rear deck. That’s a lot of work for a guy who has made a depressingly large number of revolutions around our friend the Sun.

That barrage was the seventh or eighth snow event this year. So, when the forecasters told us to expect plenty more snow for last week’s Wednesday, I went into a bit of a funk. “Enough with the shoveling already! This winter bites the big one big-time! In other words, it f*cking sucks!” I loudly thought to myself.

Fortunately, as it turned out, the outcome could have been worse, though it was bad enough. Nine inches of white matter descended onto my area, white matter that was, mercifully, far less dense than had been predicted. I spent an hour and a half that Wednesday afternoon lashed to my snow shovel, and then the job was done. I went back into the house feeling okay but, unbeknownst to me at the time, in need of some soul sustenance.

Enthroned at the dinner table at 6:15 PM, my wife Sandy and I chomped away and happily chit-chatted (Sandy: “Please pass the salt.” Neil: “Huh?” Sandy: “I need the salt. Please pass it.” Neil: “What?” Sandy: “Pass the salt, you nitwit!” Neil: “There’s no need to shout!”)

As we ate, musical accompaniment was provided by WRTI, Temple University’s radio station that spends half of each day (6:00 AM till 6:00 PM) spinning classical fare and the other half broadcasting jazz selections. So absorbed am I with filling my maw at dinnertime, music ordinarily connects only moderately with me then. But that wasn’t the case on the after-shoveling evening in question.

Around 6:30 PM, in between bites, I perked up my ears. A distinctive voice, one I recognized, began to soothe me. And the words being sung seemed very right. They got to me, made me go all warm and fuzzy inside. “I took a trip on a train/And I thought about you./I passed a shadowy lane/And I thought about you.”

It was Dinah Washington singing I Thought About You, a number written in 1939 by Jimmy Van Heusen (who composed the music) and Johnny Mercer (who penned the words). It’s a great song, one that I and most of us have heard over the years. Sinatra, Diane Schuur, Ella and a million others have recorded it. Dinah Washington’s version came out in 1959 on her album What A Diff’rence A Day Makes! Dinah nailed it.

Dinner all of a sudden, as good as it was, became better. But WRTI wasn’t done with me, thanks to Ms. Blue, that evening’s program host. Half an hour later I found my ears doing that perking-up thing again when another female voice captivated me. I knew whose voice it was. Sarah Vaughan’s. And I knew the song too, Can’t Get Out Of This Mood. It has a moody lyric, yup. And in this recording the instruments swagger and caress, as often is the case when jazz practitioners are at work. The number is damn good, not least because it was placed in Sarah’s hands. Or should I say mouth? Jimmy McHugh (music) and Frank Loesser (lyrics) wrote the tune in 1942. Sarah waxed it eight years later.

Well, Sandy and I, by then removed to the living room sofa, kept the dial set to WRTI for another two hours. And the only pieces that really registered with me during that time were by lady vocalists: Abbey Lincoln and Michelle Lordi. Somehow my mind and emotional mechanisms weren’t programmed that night to find any manner of enlightenment in non-vocal pieces or in songs warbled by persons of the male variety, though both sorts abounded on the WRTI airwaves throughout the evening. No, the female voice was what my shoveling-weary arms and shoulders and all the rest of me needed for sustenance, for rejuvenation. If Sandy and I hadn’t turned on WRTI that evening, I’d have gone to bed in an untuned state of being.

Ah, Abbey Lincoln. She’s a favorite of mine, a powerful singer and a songwriter who examined the human heart and the imbalances in society with a sharp eye. But she wasn’t the author of the tune that I heard on WRTI, which was Lost In The Stars, a melancholy rumination from the 1949 musical of the same name by Kurt Weill (music) and Maxwell Anderson (book and lyrics). If Abbey’s cries and laments don’t move you, especially those that begin at the song’s three-minute mark, then you’re a lost cause. Her recording dates from 1959.

As for No Moon At All, the composition sung by Michelle Lordi, it was a new one to me. It’s a terrific song, playful and perceptive. No Moon entered the world in 1947, the work of David Mann (music) and Redd Evans (lyrics). Michelle’s version, witty and jaunty (but not annoyingly jaunty), entered the world last year. Her vocal approach meshes ideally with the tight jazz combo frolicking with her. Dig those guitar and trumpet solos.

While compiling that which you currently are reading, I realized that only one of the four jazz vocalists — Michelle — is with us in the flesh. Dinah, Sarah and Abbey left the planet in 1963, 1990 and 2010, respectively. The three of them were superior talents. And also quite famous.

As for Michelle Lordi, who is not a big name at all, I believe her to be a marvelous singer. She’s not show-offy, for which I give the thumbs-up sign, and she’s able to find her way deeply into a lyric. She resides somewhere in my neck of the woods and performs regularly in it, as well as in The Big Apple and here and there too. I saw her perform in, of all places, a pub two miles from my house three years ago, and wrote about the show. I guess my review was pretty much a rave.

Well, the time has come for me to mention that yours truly has been tinkering with this essay a whole lot. There’s only so much tinkering a guy can stand! Adios, for now, amigos. I hope you enjoyed the music contained herein.

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A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story

Some stories coalesce properly, their meaningful themes presented intelligently, their aims met, their pacing expertly handled. Such stories have a powerful reason for being.

And then there are those stories that don’t have any good reason for being at all, such as the one I’m attempting to bang out right now. Holy crap, sweat beads are pouring from my brow, straining so hard am I to create product out of the thinnest threads of inspiration. My editor, Edgar Reewright, whom you possibly might recall from his previous appearances on these pages (click here and also here, for instance), couldn’t believe how low I was reaching when I tried to convince him that it didn’t matter if I published a pretty pointless article, considering that an infinitesimally small percentage of the human population ever reads anything I pen anyway.

“Edgar,” I said to him over the phone recently, “I’m shit out of decent story ideas. But I have to publish something, you know. Can’t let too many days elapse between articles, right? Right.”

And then I quickly summarized for him what I had in mind. I was met with dead silence for 15 seconds after I stopped talking. Finally Edgar spoke.

“Neil, you’re out of your friggin’ skull if you green-light this piece. It’s ridiculous. It’s dumpster-worthy. I want no part of it. You’re on your own with this one, cowboy.” And he hung up. Brusquely.

I took a deep breath. Tried to steady my nerves. And decided that, yes, the next day (February 11) I would proceed with my plan by beginning the writing process. Which is what I’m doing right now, as today indeed is the 11th. On what date I’ll complete the opus and punch the Publish button, I can’t say yet. But it will, of course, be well before Hell freezes over, unless that event occurs within the extremely near future.

The saga began a few hours before I dialed Edgar’s phone number. I was sitting on my living room sofa, trying to come up with something to write about, when I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section and began perusing the box scores of the previous day’s National Basketball Association (i.e., professional) games. In the distant past, when I was one of the way too many sports fanatics stomping around on our blue planet, I not only read the box scores every day during the pro basketball season, I also knew who just about every player was. My fanaticism having dissolved long ago, these days I’m familiar with maybe one out of six basketballers. But I continue to read the box scores nonetheless. What, like I have anything better to do?

Lo and behold, when I reached the final box score on the page, a synopsis of the February 9 game between the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, my eyes were drawn to an oddity in the Houston listings. What the listings contained was something I can’t remember ever coming across before during the countless hours I’ve spent in my life studying box scores from various sports. To wit, the final three surnames listed for Houston, meaning the gentlemen who were the last three to enter the game for the Rockets, were Green, Black and Brown. Wow! Three colors in a row! I had no idea who the players were (it turns out that their first names, respectively, are Gerald, Tarik and Markel), but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I, story idea-wise, now had something to work with. Colors would lead me to good places I naively assumed.

Maybe, I mused, I’ll package the green/black/brown coincidence with a discussion of my favorite colors then and now (yellow when I was a kid, blue in my adulthood), some thoughts on the insanely huge numbers of colors described and displayed in Wikipedia articles (click here, here and here to see them), and somehow bring the proceedings to a tuneful conclusion with entertainment by musicians whose names are those of colors.

But on second thought all of that seemed too much, too ungainly. What, after all, do I have to say about the infinity of colors out there? Not a whole lot, except that it’ll drive you crazy when you’re trying to decide which color to choose for your living room or bedroom walls. Too damn much choice, as is the case with nearly everything nowadays.

And so I was left with music. Poor, pitiful me. Down to the dungeon I lumbered. It is there that I store my vinyl album collection, not to mention my world-class collection of pet spiders. I’ve got about 1,000 albums in all. And about 700 spiders. I’d decided to search for color names among the vinyl platters, which hold a nostalgic and esthetic spell over me, rather than from my sizeable trove of CDs. That’s because vinyl album covers have a whole lot more charm than their CD counterparts.

On the way down the stairs I further decided that I wanted color names that were surnames, not first names, in order to continue the pattern established by Monsieurs Green, Black and Brown. And I didn’t want to duplicate the colors already taken by the basketball guys. Thus, Red Garland (jazz pianist) and Pink Anderson (blues singer and guitarist) were out, as were James Brown, Jackson Browne and Al Green.

Patient readers, let me cut to the chase. I found only three musicians who met my goofy criteria. I selected one album by each. The musicians were jazz artists. I use the past tense because all of them, sadly, are gone. Only one (Horace Silver) is fairly well-known to the general public. The other two, Don Cherry and Michael White, decidedly aren’t, especially White. Silver, a prolific composer and hard-working band leader, played straight-ahead jazz. Cherry, one of my musical heroes, was an adventurer. His trumpet forays often would blister the atmosphere. White, who wielded an electric violin, possessed a mindset somewhat similar to Cherry’s. As a side note I’ll add that Horace and Don were major talents. Michael was good, but certainly not great.

Here then are three YouTube videos. Each offers a track from one of the albums whose front covers I’ve ever so lovingly photographed for this article.

A basketball box score. And three weirdly-chosen musicians. Yup, that’s what this story is all about. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

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Soul Town, What Would I Do Without You?

There’s a guy — a cool guy — out there in Blogger World who, like quite a few bloggers, doesn’t reveal his real name. But as I say, he’s cool. How do I know? Well, anyone who calls himself Cincinnati Babyhead has got to be cool. And maybe a tad loopy too?Whatever, I dig him, though we’ve never met. But we’ve conversed with one another a lot in the comments sections of our stories, and we seem to blend like olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Like me, he’s a lover of music and film. Those are the subjects that he mostly writes about on his blog, which you can visit by clicking here. CB comes at you straight from the heart. He’s down-to-earth and nicely nitty-gritty. Go, man, go.

But hey, that’s all the free publicity I’m going to send CB’s way! I ain’t all that generous normally. What am I trying to do? Turn over a new leaf? Anyway, my reason for bringing up CB is that on January 7 of this year he wrote about a rocking song by the late, great Jackie Wilson and, as these things sometimes happen, I heard that song, Baby Workout, on the radio two days later. It’s a hell of a tune, bright and audacious and finger-snapping good. It came to me on Soul Town, one of SiriusXM satellite radio’s channels, and one that I’d be hard-pressed to live without. During a 20-minute period that day, Soul Town made my day.

When my wife Sandy and I bought our newest car six years ago, little did I know that I’d fall madly in love with SiriusXM, with which it came equipped. But I did, and quickly. So many channels! A dozen or more of them became close friends, including Soul Town, to which I listen maybe more often than any of the others. Who doesn’t like Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, to name a few of the soul and R&B artists that Soul Town plays round the clock? Huh? You in the fourth row aren’t a fan? I’ve just notified Security. They’re going to escort you out of the classroom and bar you from ever again entering a WordPress site. That’ll learn ya’!

There I was, then, returning home from the supermarket in mid-afternoon on that storied Soul Town day. I pressed the SiriusXM button and then let my right index finger tap on channel 49. My timing was perfect, as I caught the opening notes of Baby Workout, a ditty that has been with us since 1963.

I tell you, I couldn’t contain myself. I hadn’t heard the song in ages and had forgotten just how saucy and slithery it is. Jackie is coaxing a girl to join him on the dance floor, and he’s showing her his dance moves. Me, I started to move too, bouncing around in the driver’s seat like a wild man, slapping away at the steering wheel and ceiling in unusual fashion. Good thing nobody was around to see me. But uh-oh, there was. Flashing lights appeared behind me, a siren wailed righteously. I pulled over.

“Your license and registration, sir,” said Officer Bea Bopp. I handed over the documents and watched her peruse them. “What in the world are you doing? Don’t you know it’s incredibly unsightly for a septuagenarian to boogie down? Sir, you’d do well to keep your antics confined to the privacy of your own home. And there, be sure to have your shades drawn, unless you want some of your neighbors to die from laughing too hard.”

Rolling her gentle, pale green eyes, Officer Bopp handed back my papers. I thanked her and drove away.

Baby Workout was ending at this point. I was in a sweat and needed to calm down. “I’ll put on the Sinatra channel,” I said in my head, and was about to press its button when the opening, heavy piano chords of Cool Jerk came out of the speakers. Man, you’re not about to find me turning away from Cool Jerk. The song is a trip, replete with giddy whoops and hollers and hipper-than-hip lyrics. The Capitols, pretty much a one-hit wonder, nailed Cool Jerk when they entered a Detroit recording studio back in 1966. This song has never gone away. And never will.

Yeah, you guessed it. The same thing happened with Cool Jerk as with Baby Workout. I became a sight to behold within my metal cubicle. I kept glancing in the rear view mirror. Nervously. I didn’t notice any police vehicles.

Four blocks from my house Cool Jerk came to its end. But Soul Town wasn’t done with me. How do you follow-up two kick-ass numbers? The programing genius at Soul Town’s controls knew what was needed: a heady, spacey, swirling funk song that goes on and on and on. That’s what Creative Source’s 1973 cover of a Bill Withers tune is all about. Who Is He (And What Is He To You)? flowed from my car’s radio like a psychedelic dream. What was a guy to do? Pull up in front of his house, turn up the volume, keep the engine running and get out of his car, leaving the door wide open to let the music be heard, that’s what. And dance along the street with arms widespread and a beatific smile on his face.

I nearly was afloat. And I wasn’t surprised by what happened next. One, then two, then three house doors opened. My neighbors too were under a spell. Soon we all were gliding on the road, deep into the music, visiting the galaxies above.  This was a scene straight out of a movie. And it got better. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I returned to Earth and turned to see Officer Bea Bopp staring at me.

“Sir,” she said, “I’ve been following you. In my 32 years on the force I’ve never seen anyone behave like you did in your car. And now this?”

I gulped. But then she smiled bashfully. I looked into her entrancing eyes. Their soft tint went swimmingly with her blue uniform. I was sort of in love.

“Sir,” she continued, “I’m two days away from retirement. Is it against the law for an officer of the law to have some fun? It isn’t.”

She closed her eyes, held out her arms and began to groove to the music. It was a lovely sight. By the time that the final notes of Who Is He dissolved into the ethers, she had sailed to the next block. Dreams of many rosy days ahead, I imagine, were playing in her head.

(This story isn’t total fantasy. I heard those three songs on Soul Town in my car that afternoon, and CB walks among us. As for the rest . . . )

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The Day I Came THIS CLOSE To Sort Of Meeting John Lennon

Was I going through a period of temporary insanity back in 1973? Had the gates regulating the flow of my positive emotions gotten stuck in the closed position? Well, yeah, that’s not too far off the mark I guess. It was a long time ago, and I have trouble enough figuring out the current status of my state of being. But I’m not totally clueless when it comes to identifying where I was at, mentally and emotionally speaking, in my days of yore.

Photo by Bob Gruen

Yes, my recollections may be on the spotty side. Still, there’s no denying the fact that my brother Richie and I were standing on Broome Street (in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood) one morning or afternoon in May or June of 1973, when John Lennon, unaccompanied and moving briskly, walked past us. I was living in SoHo, and Richie, a student at Columbia University, resided way uptown.

Out of the corner of my eye I’d noticed Lennon approaching. Richie saw him too. Yet we were blasé about the situation. Neither of us made eye contact with or said hello to the guy we’d worshipped, who had been one of our ultimate heroes only a couple of years before.

I won’t speak for Richie, but I will for myself. “Yo, schmuck! What the hell was wrong with you, Neil?” I just heard myself asking myself.

Hey, give me a break! I was (pretty) young.

I recall this incident every great once in a while, but hadn’t in ages until Thursday of last week. As I was brushing away that morning’s breakfast, hardened like cement on my teeth, Lennon’s song One Day (At A Time) came on the radio and, for reasons unknown, it instantly brought me back in time. And I knew for sure that John Lennon was to be the key for the story you presently are reading when, a few hours later, I heard a radio disc jockey sorrowfully mention that the following day (December 8) would mark the 37th anniversary of John’s death. As nearly everyone knows, he was murdered by a crazed, miserable asshole outside the apartment building in which he lived with Yoko Ono on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

There are reasons why John Lennon and I more or less crossed paths. Here goes.

That long-ago spring found me, four years post-college, floundering magnificently in the game of life. My romantic prospects were nil. My meaningful career prospects were niller. My bank account had a few bucks in it, but basically was pitiful.

Pretty much unanchored, I sublet for three months, with a friend from my college years, an affordable, beautiful apartment on Broome Street in the up-and-coming SoHo section of lower Manhattan. I spent my time traipsing around the city, checking out the neighborhoods and low-cost entertainment and picking up temp work to bring in a smattering of bucks. Those were the days when you could eat cheaply, a slice of pizza being available for a mere 25¢, and when a person might devote a lot of hours to worrying that his personal compass wasn’t pointing in a good direction.

John Lennon wasn’t having the easiest time of it either back then. The U.S. government was doing its best to try and deport him. And he and Yoko were having big marital problems. Somewhere I’d heard or read that they were separated and that John was living in SoHo. I never knew any details of his domestic situation while I lived on Broome Street, but I kept half-expecting to see him around.

See a Beatle on the street? Man, once I’d have fainted if that ever came to pass. I mean, I’d been an incredibly major Beatles fan. I lived and breathed Beatles for years. But strangely, a year or two after their 1970 dissolution, their aura began to dissipate. I still kept up with each Beatle’s doings, but the magic spell they’d had me under was no more.

Yep, John had plenty to worry about in 1973. But his woes didn’t stop him from doing what he did best: Writing songs and making music. Undertaking a bit of research last week, I discovered that he entered a Manhattan studio in July 1973 to record his Mind Games album. Most likely he was writing some songs for that record when I saw him on Broome Street. And the kicker is this: One Day (At A Time) comes from Mind Games. There’s a real chance that the lovely song that set this story in motion might have been partially playing in his head when our near-encounter took place.

Some stories need a moral and/or reason for being, and this is one of them. I therefore pose this question: If I knew then what I know now, would I have acted differently? Answer: Damn straight, boys and girls. I ain’t exactly deep on the path to enlightenment in these latter stages of my life, but I sure have a few bits more sense than did my more youthful self.

For example, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told. If I’d had my head on straighter in 1973 I’d have smiled at John Lennon and said “Hey, man. Thanks for all the great music you’ve made,” or “Hello, John. Fancy meeting you here.”

Lennon likely would have saluted Richie and me and thrown a “It’s a pleasure, gents” type of remark at us while continuing on his way. And if something along those lines had taken place, I’d now have a hell of a better tale to tell than the one I own. Or, come to think of it, maybe not . . . as with all aspects of life, it depends on how you look at things.

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Looking At Love: A Musical Story

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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Before, During And After Lunch: Slices Of Life And Of Pizza

I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of this blog. Not a whole lot, but enough to see that my stories — when you look at their sometimes straight, sometimes wavering and sometimes loopy as hell strokes — paint a pretty good picture of what I’m about. I’m not one to reveal all. I’ll never write a word, for instance, about the time, 40 years ago, when I went undercover in Nepal to help bring down the notorious Himalayan gang of bank robbers that dressed themselves in highly-convincing yeti costumes. Or about my space-boot shopping spree with Neil Armstrong a few days before he blasted off for the Moon. But I reveal plenty, I think.

Basically I’m a simple guy who does simple things. Well, simple cum lopsided things often might be a more accurate description. And for the last two and a half years I’ve been writing about them. My articles peer at, for the most part, typical days for yours truly, show what my interests are and have been, and show who has accompanied me (and whom I’ve accompanied) on this journey through what we affectionately call life.

Slices of life. Yeah, that’s what I usually find myself describing. And now that I’ve expended nearly 200 words in trying to establish a degree of context for this current opus, I’ll turn my attention in that direction. “Yo, you better, pal,” I hear a few voices saying. “Our time is limited. We’re this close to closing out your article and checking out some YouTube videos of skateboarding kangaroos.”

Right, right, ye whose attention span is shorter than Donnie Trump’s fuse (but not shorter than his dick). Here we go.

Last Friday I found myself heading north from my suburban Philadelphia abode. My car, having a mind of its own, drove itself two and a half miles to an establishment that ranks high on my ladder of places where I like to grab a bite for lunch. In fact, it probably is my favorite lunchtime eatery in my neck of the woods. And that’s because, speaking of slices, I believe that the slices of pie that one purchases at Nino’s Pizzarama are damn good. A card-carrying fool for pizza, I down them there two or three times a month (and I go to other pizza joints throughout each month too).

I ordered a slice of regular pie and one of Sicilian. They hit the spot regally, though I was slightly disappointed in the regular’s crust. Too chewy. The pie needed to have been left in the oven for another 20 or 30 seconds to become as crispy as it itself was hoping to become. Such is the life of pie.

While munching away, I couldn’t get out of my head a song I’d heard on the radio during my northward trek. It’s a very beautiful recording, one that I instantly became attached to soon after its release in 1968: Hickory Wind, by The Byrds. As always, it sounded wonderful.

Hickory Wind comes from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a magnificent country-rock album. The Byrds, famed for earlier numbers such as the psychedelic nugget Eight Miles High and the folk-rock staple Turn, Turn, Turn, had undergone some significant stylistic and personnel shifts by the time it was waxed. Three of the five original members were gone and new guys, most notably the space cowboy Gram Parsons, who helped push the band partly into country-music territory, were on board. Parsons is one of rock and roll’s legendary names, not only for his big musical talents, but for his wild and wooly and troubled life. He died of a drug overdose in 1973.

Gram Parsons is credited with having written Hickory Wind in 1968 with his musical compadre Bob Buchanan. (There is a dispute over the song’s authorship, by the way. Some claim that a little-known folksinger named Sylvia Sammons composed it, and that Parsons stole it from her. The truth never will be known, it seems.) It has been recorded by many since then, but The Byrds put it out first.

What a song. Wistful and melancholy, it stands you up straight and makes you think about the times when loneliness and an aching heart might have ruled your days. That’s Gram singing lead. In the car I melted as I listened to his yearning voice and to the sad, sad notes coming from Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar. Man, you want to be in a happy mood when you’re eating pizza. But me, I sat at one of Nino’s tables in a contemplative frame of mind, not fully able to concentrate on the powers of sweet tomato sauce, excellent melted cheese and could-be-better crust.

There’s much to be said for contemplative, though. It’s a state that can be good for the inner being, helping us to put things in perspective and, if we’re lucky, softening our defenses. On the way home from Nino’s I turned on the radio and found myself on the receiving end of another helping of such as Horace Silver‘s Lonely Woman filled the car. Silver, whose rich 60-year career in the jazz world ended with his passing in 2014, composed and recorded Lonely Woman in 1963. It came out in 1965 on his most famous album, Song For My Father.

There’s little I need to say about the song. It is subdued and righteous and should be better known than it is. A trio (Horace on piano, Roy Brooks on drums, and Gene Taylor on bass) perform Lonely Woman, Horace having decided that the tune would benefit if saxophone and trumpet, which appear on the majority of his recordings, sat this one out. Less sometimes is more. What’s more, Horace plays straight through Lonely Woman’s seven-minute length, having further decided that neither a bass solo nor drum solo were appropriate. Hats off to that.

Slices of life. Slices of pizza. I’m sure a spot-on connection could be drawn between them, and that slice-y metaphors are out there ripe for the picking. Those with bulbs brighter than mine would have no trouble drawing and picking. Which is why I now shall quietly exit the stage, before long to return with another tale of the sublimely simple. Till then, amigos . . .

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One Of Al Green’s Songs Righted My Ship For A While

Mount Digitalium

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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Three Songs Of Summer

Hooray, it’s summer in my section of Planet Earth! Hooray, day after day has been hotter than hell! Hooray, the humidity has been flaunting its energy-sapping powers majestically! Hooray, early last week I was sweating like a frigging pig and well on my way to heat-stroke territory while mowing the lawn under a ridiculously strong, early-evening sun!

Summer . . .   for the last 25 or more years I have placed it in the This Kind Of Sucks category.

When I was a kid and teen and young adult, though, summer was the best. I loved going to the beach, spreading out on the sands for hours atop a blanket and happily slathering Coppertone suntan oil on nearly every exposed inch of my body in the hopes that my pale white-guy skin would achieve at least a smidgeon of brownish tint. Yeah man, roasting under heat rays generously sent to us from 93,000,000 miles away was the way to go. Sunscreen? Fuggedaboutit. It hadn’t been invented yet and probably would have been laughed off the stage even if it had. Too bad that I, like all guys and girls back then, didn’t have Nostradamus-like abilities to gaze into the future and marvel at the many visits to dermatologists’ offices that awaited us.

Anyway, there I was at 10:00 AM, a few days after mowing the lawn, on a journey to my local supermarket. As I pulled out of my driveway I partly rolled down a couple of windows to let some of the suffocating heat escape. It was already 82° Fahrenheit outside and a hell of a lot hotter than that inside the car. Should I turn on the A/C, I wondered? Nah. The supermarket was only seven minutes away. Only a wuss would need cooled air for a trip of such short duration. Me, I’m not a wuss. I’m a man. More or less.

Seven minutes later, with sweat flowing off me faster than a mountain stream, I arrived at my destination. Good thing I’d had good company along the way. By which I mean I heard a great song on the radio, one that hadn’t crossed my path in ages. Summer Breeze it was, but not the 1972 original by Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, who authored the tune together and had a monster hit with it. The Seals & Crofts recording is a-ok, a gentle and calming invocation of warm summer nights. But the station I was listening to, SiriusXM satellite radio’s Soul Town, played the 1973 cover version by The Isley Brothers.

I’ve always preferred the way The Isleys handle the song to Seals & Crofts’ approach. The complexity of the arrangement, the Chinese-sounding entry into the song, those shimmering, impossibly high voices, the gorgeous electric guitar solo that starts shortly after the four-minute mark and keeps on going to song’s end two minutes later . . . I tell you, in the car I was carried away by Summer Breeze’s grace and power. Here it is:

I completed my rounds inside the supermarket in a semi-flash. On my way home I punched Soul Town’s button once again, usually a good idea. I love that channel. The station came on mid-song. And the song — Hot Fun In The Summertime — was one that nobody in his or her right mind ever will complain about. Sly And The Family Stone put it out in 1969, during their glory days. It’s a champ. Dig the pounding piano that never lets up, those exuberant vocals, the piercing trumpet. Hot Fun’s good vibes guided me back to my house.

Wow, two songs about summer had found me during the handful of minutes I’d been in my car. As a massive believer in the gods of the blogosphere, I had no doubt that a mighty message was directed my way. And that the message was this: “Yo, you who is wearing the incredibly sweat-stained Fred Flintstone tee shirt, listen up! It is your duty to fashion a story out of the first three uplifting summer-themed songs that you hear today. Yes, the songs must invoke summer’s good times, despite the fact that you no longer are a fan of the hot season.”

“And remember,” the message continued, “your story must focus on three songs, not merely two. There is something special about groups of three, such as the three strands of hair remaining on the crown of your head.”

Well, back at the ranch I turned on the stereo system and began flipping from one station to another. I did this on and off for several hours. I knew that a great number, such as The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City or Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime soon would be heading my way. When it didn’t arrive I started to fidget and worry. I had been commanded to compose an opus, but there was only so much time I was willing to devote to the enterprise. Finally though, WRDV, the low-wattage radio station located not far from my home, delivered the goods at 3:15 PM. But my heart sank a little, for through the speakers came one of the summery songs I’ve never been thrilled about: Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer, in this instance sung by the great Nat King Cole. Corny lyrics abound. I suppose that in some sense they seem charming, especially if you’ve tied one on and feel compelled to sing along with all your might. The blogging gods obviously are taken with the song, or otherwise they’d not have placed me in position to hear it. Who am I to argue? Okay then, here we go — a one, a two and a three — “Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer . . . ”

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Philadelphia To The Rescue

Two Saturday mornings ago I was in the kitchen of my suburban Philadelphia home, contemplating the whys and wherefores of the universe. My wife Sandy was fastened to the living room sofa, absentmindedly wandering around the web on our laptop computer. If somebody had painted our portraits that morning they could have done worse than to title each canvas Inertia. Now, inertia is a weirdly compelling phenomenon. I’m quite familiar with and knowledgeable about it, as I spend half my waking hours within its grasp. If I were able to bottle it I think I’d become crazily wealthy. I mean, people once spent millions upon millions of dollars on pet rocks, didn’t they?

Luckily for us, our great pal Gene dialed our number around 11:00 AM. Sandy picked up the phone and spoke with him for a few minutes. After hanging up she told me what Gene had to say.

“Gene and Cindy [his wife] went to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday. He says it’s very good. He recommends that we go.”

“Yo!” I exclaimed, just like most Philadelphia aficionados are prone to do. “Gene has the right idea. Let’s go into Philly to check out that show and then we’ll see where the city’s polluted winds carry us after that.”

Two hours later we closed our eyes, clicked our heels three times and thought magical thoughts. That formula always works. Within seconds we were at 18th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia’s central section. We crossed the street and walked into Rittenhouse Square, a gorgeous one-square block park that dates back to the late 1600s. From what I’ve read, in those days and for many ensuing years the park wasn’t looking all that good. In the early 1900s it was redesigned and infused with trees and shrubs in a pretty extraordinary manner, bringing it up to the high standards set by parks in Paris and other European cities.

Neither Sandy nor I had been to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in at least 20 years. It’s an annual affair that began in 1928, making the most recent event the 90th consecutive one. That’s staying power. The show used to be an open-air display. That’s why I was surprised to see that most of the paintings and sculptures were under cover, housed within 143 tent-like booths ringing the perimeter of the park. Don’t know in what year the show’s organizers brought in the tents, but it was good thinking on their part. Now the show can go on even if it rains.

One hundred and forty-three booths holding the works of professional artists? Holy crap, that’s a big amount. And the total doesn’t include the 18 booths in the center of the park that were devoted to the output of student artists. Sandy and I looked at nearly every single booth’s contents, I think, though at the time I’d have guessed that I’d encountered maybe 60 or 70 booths. It was a couple of days later, when reading the show’s brochure, that I learned the true numbers at the park.

Well, what can I say? I’m an art lover, but in trying to catch a glimpse of everything I didn’t act like one, doing little more than to throw a glance at most of the offerings. I made super-quick judgments, deciding in a flash whether or not an artist’s oeuvre was worth my spending a bit of time with, and coming to the madly incorrect conclusion that most weren’t. That’s not the way I behave in museums, where I linger in front of and analyze the works. Oh well, clicking my heels must have set my limited-attention-span mechanism afire. Or perhaps I was just being my usual half-crazed self.

Still, now and then I did stop to smell the roses. For instance, I liked the stylish, black and white, Art Deco-ish drawings by Anastasia Alexandrin a lot. And the same went for the madcap animal sculptures by Scott Causey. And also for John Pompeo’s sturdy, excellently-balanced paintings of landscapes and barns.

Anastasia Alexandrin and her artworks
Scott Causey’s sculptures
John Pompeo and his paintings

And what I liked as much as or more than all the art works was the park itself. It felt great to be among trees and shrubbery and lawn areas exploding in myriad shades of green. And to walk the wide pathways of an elegantly symmetrical park that hordes of Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors love to be in. Rittenhouse Square is a winner, one of the city’s brightest spots.

The day wasn’t over. After taking a pause that refreshed, Sandy and I decided to make our way to West Philadelphia, an enormous swath of Philadelphia’s territory, where, in the area known as University City, the second annual West Philly Porchfest was in full swing. Porchfest is an idea that was born 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York. Since then it has turned into reality in quite a few towns and cities in the States and in a handful of locations outside the USA. I wrote about last year’s West Philly Porchfest, and you can read the article by clicking right here.

To hold a Porchfest, you need a lot of porches. And in University City porches reign. It was on those structures that musicians gathered to fill the air with song. I’d estimate that around 150 acts hit the stages (i.e., porches) throughout the day two Saturdays ago. I kind of fizzled at the art show, but I got my act together at Porchfest and let the vibes enter me in an intelligent manner.

Mountain music jam session
Ditto

Between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, Sandy and I wandered around, program schedules in our hands. We checked out eight or so acts. The quality of the music was hit or miss. What we ended up liking the best was a mountain music jam session taking place on a quiet, leafy block of Walton Avenue. Fifty or so folks were soaking in the sweet sounds on the sidewalks and in the street. Most musicians at Porchfest, which presents many genres of music, amplified their instruments. But the mountain music jammers didn’t. No matter at all. I crept nice and close to the porch and got swept away by the sometimes gritty, sometimes aching and lonesome notes spilling from the musicians’ mouths and instruments. They were as casual and unassuming a group of performers as ever you’ll see, no different than the players strumming, picking and singing at their homes in mountain hollows in the southern states where this soulful, addictive music was born many years ago. I thought that Cameron DeWhitt killed on the banjo, that Jordan Rast fiddled like a demon, in a good sense, and that Peter Oswald set a firm footing with his cello work (Yep, a cello. It’s not the typical mountain music instrument, but at Porchfest it fit in just fine). Applause, applause.

Audience at mountain music jam session

Come 6:00 PM, Sandy and I were getting hungry. Our dinner in a West Philadelphia hot spot (Dock Street Brewery) was good. But, as my mind is starting to wander and your eyes probably are getting tired from reading this story, I’ll skip the dinner write-up. I’d bid you all adieu right now had I not one more thing to add. Namely, at the train station in West Philadelphia where we boarded a choo-choo that took us back to the burbs, we were taken by a view of central Philadelphia, some of its tall towers beautifully aglow. The picture was too pretty a one not to snap. Snap it I did:

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