Saturday, November 26, 2011

Memories: Barrytown

Steely Dan: Barrytown


As a parent, many of life’s best and most potent memories will involve one’s children. There are, of course, the milestones: births and birthdays, first steps, first days at school, holidays, graduations, weddings etc. And there will be random events or just the vibe of a certain age which resonates stronger than that of other ages.

My only child, a son who now is 17, has given me a truckload of such memories, all of them happy. One particular joyful memory is our sharing in the enjoyment of music. When he was three years old, for a while I had to dance him to sleep. I’d put on some vinyl records, and slowly dance and sing along until he’d drift away. Over time, a standing playlist developed.

Bath-time was singing time. He’d loudly sing his favourite nursery rhymes and then some songs on our evening playlist. I have a home video recording of him sitting in the bath singing The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and John Travolta’s “Sandy” from Grease.

Another home video recording of that time concerns none of our sleep-dancing songs. Sitting at our dining room table, he spontaneously starts singing: “I can see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown.” As readers of my blog, Any Major Dude With Half A Heart, will know, I am rather partial to Steely Dan, and the first side of 1974’s Pretzel Logic is, in my view, a masterpiece. So I was very proud of my little boy for digging on the musical stylings of the Dan.

He has remained pretty cool. The first CD he bought with his own money, when he was 10, was The Beastie Boys’ Licence To Ill, an album released 18 years earlier; the second, soon after, was a best of collection of The Highwaymen (that’s the Cash/Jennings/ Kristofferson/ Nelson country supergroup).

At the same age, he turned up for his first guitar lesson. “What do you want to play?” the tutor, a grizzled old session man, asked him, no doubt expecting to hear in response Green Day or Black Eyed Peas. My son – ten years old – replied: “Johnny Cash”. Which is as cool an answer as he could ever have given. In the end, he did learn several Green Day songs, and he is still a keen guitar player – of old and new material.

Memories: Beating Harps

Sileas: Beating Harps


Beating Harps, the song and the album, came out in 1987. That was a very important year for me. For the last six months of the year, I was on temporary lay-off from my job. Knowing that I would be called back, I decided to live on the unemployment, while seeing if I could make an opening for myself in the music business. To do this, I decided to identify some non-profit organizations in New York City that were involved in music, and offer my services as a volunteer. So I stuffed envelopes while the Waverly Consort rehearsed in the next room. I went into schools all over the city with a group that brought interesting music to children. And I helped get mailings out for the World Music Institute. At this last one, there was a bonus; in exchange for helping out at the merchandise table, I got to attend concerts of my choice.

Also in 1987, I met a woman at a Western Square Dance club, and we began dating. I hadn’t been seeing anyone for three years, so this was a big deal for me. As I got to know her, I found that we shared a love of Celtic folk music. So, when an evening of Scottish music came up, presented by the World Music Institute, I arranged an unusual date, where we both worked the show. On the bill were Andy Stewart and Manus Lunny, and Sileas. I had never heard of them, but I knew that WMI put on quality shows. It turned out beautifully. We both loved the show, and we bought up for ourselves all of the artists’ albums that were available on the merch table.

Sileas were the duo of Patsy Seddon, playing a gut-stringed Celtic harp, and Mary MacMaster, on steel-string harp. So they play the same instrument, but each sounds completely different from the other. They complement each other beautifully, each filling the spaces left by the other. Their singing works the same way, with one taking lead, and the other supporting her with wonderful harmonies. Ideally, a relationship should be like that. The woman I took to that concert has been my wife for twenty years now. The music our lives make has sour notes sometimes, but so far, we have always found that sound again. Four years after that concert, we walked down the aisle to the sound of a Celtic harper. Janice, this post is for you. I love you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Memories: Sailing

Rod Stewart: Sailing


In August 1977, when I was 11, my brothers and I went on a church camp. Unlike the other two I went on, this one was quite brilliant. The group, about 40 kids from 9-15, was great, and the vibe was fantastic, in part because the youth leaders (themselves just kids aged 17-19 years, but they seemed so much older to me) were very cool.

Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I was in love. Her name was Antje, a girl with brown hair and little freckles on her nose. It was a one-sided affair; I was much too shy to do much about it, other than carving her name on my bed’s headboard (and anywhere else I found suitable), and she was very shy too.

A night or two before our departure we had a disco evening. I dressed in my tight white jeans (to what purpose did my mom pack tight white jeans for a fortnight in a church camp?) and navy t-shirt. I was pretty hot stuff, but a terrible dancer. Still, I was intent on asking Antje for a slow dance, as some way to seal my (oh, perhaps our) love. To be sure that I’d know what to do should my scheme come to fruition, I asked one of the youth leaders, the ample-bossomed Doris, to practice with me. She kindly did, to Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London. The next ballad would be my cue.

After a never-ending string of Sweet and T Rex songs, played by my DJing older brother, the opening acoustic guitar notes of Rod Stewart’s Sailing sounded. Memory might deceive me when think that my brother might have tipped me off with a gesture of the hand; I like to remember that he did, rooting for his little brother as he tried to become a little man. So, in my tight white jeans and navy T-shirt, I arose and made a beeline across the dancefloor for the lovely Antje.

Halfway down, approaching from the right flank, came a chap called Roland. He was an affable fellow, but I sensed that he and I were aiming for the same target. I don’t remember whether I actually knew that he too had taken a fancy to the lovely Antje, or whether I saw it in the menacing glint of his evil eyes. He might have had his sights set on any number of girls cliqued together in the lovely Antje’s vicinity. Still, whether by intelligence or intuition, I knew his intended target right at that moment was my Antje. Roland. My nemesis.

It was like High Noon; tumbleweed blowing as nervous eyes darted hither and tither. Little me and big Roland, both going after the same girl as we strutted across the empty dancefloor with the entire crowd watching from the sidelines. Our paths met.

Instinctively, I shoulder-charged my taller rival out of the way. As he bounced off my shoulder and ignominiously tumbled away, I arrived in front of the lovely Antje, stood before her and asked with a boldness that belied my natural shyness whether she would dance with me, to Rod Stewart’s Sailing. She looked inquiringly at her best friend for approval. Her friend nodded consent, with a faint but assuring smile, hopefully impressed by my heroic determination to present her best friend with my love.

So Antje and I had our awkward first – and, alas, last – dance, as all my pals gave me the thumbs up, and the hapless Roland licked his wounded pride by plotting a revenge which he loudly announced but which never came (and if it had come, I still won).

I would love to tell you that for the last day or so of the camp we were inseparable and discovered inner yearnings and feelings of the kind which the adult Kevin Arnold would recount in his narrative in The Wonder Years. Alas, we could barely look at one another, perhaps sensing the hopelessness of our nascent romance, what with her living a long 45 minute bus ride away from me (or maybe we were just very shy).

I never saw Antje again. But not a year goes by nor a broadcast of Rod Stewart’s Sailing when I don’t think of her, of the feeling of my hands on the back of her slightly clammy T-shirt and her soft breath brushing against my neck. I wonder if she remembers me…

Monday, November 21, 2011

Memories : If You Were There

Isley Brothers: If You Were There


On one of my trips to Charleston, South Carolina I stopped off at a store to buy an album I wasn't really familiar with: the Isley Brothers 3 + 3. It became a soundtrack for that sunny weekend spent on the beach, in fine restaurants, among good friends and relatives. Every time I got in my car, I played the CD ...which kicks off with 5 and half minutes of their huge 1973 hit "That Lady, Pt 1 & 2". Big memories? Not really. But every time I play 3 + 3 I feel like I'm back in one of my favorite places in the world.

I've tried the "soundtrack" trick a few times. Listening to Electric Ladyland in India. ( Its fiery wah wah guitar solos take me back to winding mountain roads and hand painted Coke signs) Grant Lee Buffalo's Fuzzy always reminds me how cold and windy San Francisco can be. Zappa's Grand Wazoo brings back dreams of  China. Compared to photographs, music provides a subtle shortcut to memories and emotions. Try the soundtrack trick some time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Memories: (It’s a) Big World

Joe Jackson: (It‘s a) Big World


My middle brother and I were rivals for much of our childhood. We shared a bedroom, which sometimes helped but often hurt. We are almost exactly two years apart in age, with his birthday in late August and mine in early September. Usually, that at least wasn’t an issue. But there was one year when one of our birthday presents were both late. We didn’t even get it until January 25 of the following year, and then we had to share it. Speaking for myself, it was one of the best birthday presents I have ever received, and well worth the wait. Here’s what happened.

There is a third brother, the oldest. My middle brother and I were both adults at the time, with our old rivalries more of a memory than anything else. The oldest brother got us tickets to a rock concert in New York City. It was my first New York show, so that would have been enough for me. It was Joe Jackson at the Roundabout Theater. I loved Joe Jackson’s music then and now, so that was certainly a bonus. But here was the kicker: Jackson was recording his new album at a series of three shows at the Roundabout, and this was the third one. I have never known whether my oldest brother got the tickets for the third show on purpose, or if that was simply the tickets that were left when he decided to do this. But it worked out great. The resulting album was Big World. Give the entire album a listen, and you will never hear the audience. Big World is what might be called a live studio album. When we arrived, we received written instructions which were also repeated from the stage at the beginning of the show. We were told that Jackson didn’t want any audience sounds on the album, so we were not to cheer or applaud during a song, and at the end only when we were sure the last note had completely faded out. In further instructions from the stage, Jackson told us that this last show was to be devoted to the songs that had been giving Jackson and his band the most trouble, so we might hear the same song twice. Furthermore, if all went well, the later part of the show would be a normal concert, once all of the songs for the album were finished. One of the songs that got finished that night would become the title track of the album, and that is the song I have chosen. I love seeing a band or artist visibly enjoying themselves on stage. The sense of satisfaction that came to Jackson and his band as they nailed those songs was an amazing thing to see.

A final note about live studio albums: I had never heard of anyone making an album in this way before Joe Jackson did it, but David Wilcox made a live studio album last year. I would be interested in hearing in the comments about other examples, especially from people who were lucky enough to attend the shows.