Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Carpenters, “A Song For You”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Here I tell a story about the first celebrity death that hit me hard. I wrote this before the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, deaths that did not hit me particularly hard but did deeply affect many of my friends, and maybe you. It’s just part of being human to mourn the loss of people we didn’t really know, but whose work made us feel like we did. I wish somebody had explained that to me when I was a kid.

It could well be my first memory. Workday mornings, Dad’s alarm blaring, I’d get down out of bed and pad quietly into his room. If I lay still on the corner of his bed, he’d let me stay. While he got dressed in the dim light of his side-table lamp, his clock radio played softly on the Hit Parade station. I must have been three, because that’s how old I was when the Carpenters’ “Close to You” went to number one. Hit Parade played it every morning and I so looked forward to it. When it played, I’d close my eyes to see colors that flowed and shifted as Karen Carpenter sang. Such joy!

Growing up in the 1970s as I did, it was easy to be a Carpenters fan because their music saturated radio: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World,” “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” “Rainy Days and Mondays.” I especially loved “Only Yesterday.” I used to glide back and forth on our back-yard swing and sing it over and over again. I was in love with Karen Carpenter’s voice!

Those early records remained such radio staples that it was easy not to notice that the duo had few hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their early success brought enormous pressure, and they struggled to handle it. Richard wound up addicted to Quaaludes, a sedative. Karen dieted compulsively, to the point of damaging her health. Her case thrust anorexia nervosa into the public consciousness. Not only did they take time off to rest and recover, but the few songs they did release in those years just didn’t connect with as many people. Few became radio hits.

Meanwhile, I was just a teen who loved to hear and sing the songs from my favorite band. I had no idea the challenges Karen and Richard faced; all I knew of them as people came from their smiling personas on their frequent TV specials. And then, while idly watching TV one February evening in 1983, I caught this news brief on ABC:

I was shocked so deeply, so sharply, that I felt like I had suddenly been set on fire. The report went by so fast that part of me wasn’t even sure I had really heard it. There was no Internet to check for confirmation, and we didn’t have cable so I couldn’t switch to the fledgling CNN for more information.

I was deeply confused by the depth of my reaction. So much pain, so much grief, over a woman I didn’t actually know! I told my mom, my dad; they said they were sorry, but they were clearly surprised by how hard I was taking the news and didn’t know how to comfort me. I felt alone with my grief, which I couldn’t shake. Nobody knew how important Karen’s voice was to me. I scarcely knew until Karen died.

I had just one Carpenters album, a gift from my parents several years before. I ached to buy more so I could hear more of their songs. I saved my meager allowance and I did chores for neighbors for money for weeks and weeks until I had saved enough to buy another. Money in pocket, I rode the city bus to the mall, walked into Musicland, and picked an album out almost at random: A Song For You, from 1973.

ASongForYou

I came right back home and put the platter on my record player. The title track opened the album, and shortly Karen sang these words:

I love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for in my life you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you

I could scarcely believe what I heard, and my head spun. I knew it wasn’t possible for Karen’s words to be a direct message for me, yet how could I not let them penetrate and help me grieve? At last, I cried openly. I began to move on.

I would buy the rest of the Carpenters’ catalog over the next couple years. Their music remains a beloved part of the soundtrack of my life. And I’ll always be grateful that fate, or perhaps random chance, delivered “A Song For You” to me first.

Click Play to listen to “A Song For You.”

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Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My recent post about my renovated elementary school reminded me of this post I wrote when my blog was new and almost nobody was reading it. It shares some memories of Kindergarten in that school. So I’ve dusted it off, edited it a little, and added photos.

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

James Monroe School

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.

James Monroe School

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.

Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

And then there was the time I felt God telling me that real joy was in seeking him and being in his presence. Read the story.

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Music, Stories Told

Best of DTR: Brushes with greatness

When I published the first version of this post in April, 2007, the blog was new and got maybe five hits a day. I get, gosh, a whopping 50 hits a day now and have a few regular commenters, so I thought I’d dust this favorite off, update it a bit, and post it again.

In the summer of 1986 I drove a rusty brown 1975 Ford Pinto all over northern Indiana delivering papers and small packages for a courier service (owned by my aunt, thank you nepotism). This car came complete with manual steering, manual brakes, and an AM radio with a single speaker mid-dash. The South Bend AM radio dial offered me news, religion, polkas, and old-fogey music, but I could also pick up WLS from Chicago, which was still playing rock and top 40. That summer WLS was my driving companion. Fred Winston did the morning show, Don Wade and his wife Roma held down middays, and Larry Lujack and Rich McMillan came on in the afternoon. They were all talented and entertaining jocks and soon I listened more for them than for the music. I can’t remember which of them had the semi-regular call-in feature called Brush with Greatness, in which listeners were invited to call and tell stories of times they encountered famous people. A remarkable number of those stories were funny or touching.

For a guy who has always lived in places famous people studiously avoid (despite Steve Martin’s famous trips to Terre Haute), I’ve met a few people of talent and notoriety. These, then, are my brushes with greatness.

I admit that this first story is a stretch, but it’s my blog and I want to tell it. My parents have played canasta with their best friends every Saturday night since 1966. Somehow, Mr. Porter knew Tony Randall, whom you know as Felix Unger on the sitcom The Odd Couple. One Saturday night sometime in the late 70s, dragged along to the Porters’ for another night of watching TV until my parents quit playing cards, the air was electric because Mr. Randall was expected to call sometime that evening. And he did call. While Mr. Porter and Mr. Randall talked, I sat in wonder that this man I watched in reruns was alive at his telephone. Did he stand at the wall phone in his kitchen like Mr. Porter, I wondered, or perhaps did he sit in a cordovan leather wing chair in a book-lined study with a half-consumed glass of tawny port next to his black desk phone on an oval walnut end table with red oak inlay? Mr. Porter seemed a little taller to me for a while after that call.

Here’s a much better story. In the summer of 1985, I met a bunch of friends from all corners of Indiana on Long Beach near Michigan City for a weekend of beaching and catching up with each other. All of us being 17 or 18, we thought nothing of cramming ourselves into a little hatchback for a drive. One was in the way back trying not to crack her head on the hatch glass, four or five were crammed into the back seat, I was in the front seat with a lovely girl on my lap (no seat-belt laws in Indiana then!), and of course somebody drove. Our windows were down as we cruised so we could enjoy the warm summer air. At a light, a dark-colored BMW sedan with tinted windows pulled up alongside us on our left. We all oohed and aahed over the shiny Bimmer when the front passenger window went down. A man leaned across the seat and asked us for directions to a movie theater. He looked familiar, and his voice was distinctive, but it wasn’t until our driver asked in disbelief, “Are you Jim Belushi?” that it clicked. He said yes and immediately asked again for directions. The girl in my lap lived in the area and started to shout the directions as the light changed and the rest of us in the car went nuts. I remember a towheaded little boy popped into view in the passenger seat and looked around as we all drove off, directions still being given. We were going pretty fast by the time Jim thanked us, rolled up his window, and zoomed away from us. I still don’t know what the heck Jim Belushi was doing in Michigan City. Somebody said his family owned property on Long Beach.

During my teenage years I met a bunch of artists who had exhibits at the art museum at the University of Notre Dame, since dad’s friend Porter directed the museum. The only artist to leave any impression on me was Christo. He and his wife Jeanne-Claude do big and sometimes controversial works such as wrapping the German Reichstag in over a million square feet of woven polypropylene in or hanging saffron-colored strips of cloth from saffron-colored vinyl poles in New York’s Central Park. Anyway, when Christo entered the room, its whole tenor changed. The man had his own atmosphere! He shook my hand when Mr. Porter introduced me, but in sharp contrast to the air about this man, his handshake was limp. He didn’t look directly at me.

I didn’t exatly meet Richard Carpenter, but I got a letter from him. I’ve always been a closet Carpenters fan, and in 1986 I boldly wrote a gushing letter to the Carpenters Fan Club telling them how much I had enjoyed the Carpenters’ music. A couple months later, a letter came for me in an envelope with the A&M Records logo on it. It contained a brief letter from Richard on A&M Records stationery saying that my letter touched him. His long signature at the bottom looked like a convention of ovals. I have to believe it was a form letter handed to Richard for signature, but I was thrilled anyway. I sure wish I knew what happened to that letter.

Grim Reaper album cover

In college, my friend Michael was music director for the campus radio station. He worked the record labels to get free records and CDs for the station, and the reps sometimes invited him to concerts to encourage him to put their artists into rotation. In about 1987 he got invited to a heavy-metal triple bill — Armored Saint, Grim Reaper, and power-metal pioneers Helloween, — up in Chicago, and asked me along. I’m sure you don’t know these bands, but in our world they were pretty much major stars. I liked Grim Reaper all right and I was hot into Helloween, so I was pretty excited. Sweetening the deal, Michael got invited to interview the founder of Grim Reaper, a guitarist named Nick Bowcott. We drove up from Terre Haute in his old Buick, a $750 car stuffed with $1,500 of premium audio equipment. We rocked powerfully and distortion-free all the way to the Aragon Theater only to find that the show had been moved to a bar in some other part of town. I thought we were sunk, but Michael was not daunted. He followed some sketchy directions, threading his leviathan automobile through narrow streets in seedy parts of town, and we made the show just in time. It rocked. Afterwards, we were escorted to the tour bus where Nick awaited. The whole band was on board, along with a stream of girls right around the age of consent with faces full of makeup, bodies not very full of clothes, and eyes full of hope and desire that they would be special that night. Band members seemed at once interested, wary, and uncomfortable with their attention — except the lead singer, who just seemed interested. Most of the girls were shooed off, Nick sat down before us, Michael pressed the Record button on his little tape recorder, and the interview began. Nick was bright, energetic, passionate, and engaged. He answered Michael’s questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, talking freely about the band, making albums, succeeding in the recording industry, and even the existence of God (which he doubted). He looked deeply and intensely into our eyes as he spoke. I wondered if he knew we were two 20-year-old kids from a 160-watt radio station that covered maybe a two-mile radius (half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm) on the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana, but he treated us like we were from Rolling Stone. He gave us his sole attention as long as Michael had questions. Nick Bowcott was a class act.

Finally, I got to see one of my favorite bands, Heart, play in 2006 at the Morris Performing Arts Center, a fine old theater in South Bend. It had been something like 12 years since I’d seen them live, and I had won a contest to briefly meet Ann and Nancy Wilson backstage before the show, so I was stoked. The other contest winners and I waited near the stage entrance for our chance. They had all brought items for Ann and Nancy to sign and I wondered why I hadn’t thought to do that. The handler came out and said that our meeting would be very brief and that we could have them sign only one item each. A friendly woman with a bright smile asked me if I would mind having Ann and Nancy sign an item she brought, since she had brought two, and I said “Sure.” As the handler took us backstage, he explained that recently some fans had done upsetting and frightening things at these meet-and-greets, so we would do this in receiving-line style so we wouldn’t overwhelm Ann and Nancy, and we had to quietly wait our turn or we would be escorted out, period. I could see that this would be different from my Nick Bowcott experience. When Ann and Nancy came out, flanked by crew, they stayed shoulder to shoulder with each other and looked to make sure they were surrounded by people they knew. As we advanced in turn, they dutifully signed the items we brought but didn’t say anything. When my turn came, there was some confusion as the opening act came to meet Ann and Nancy too. I was standing in front of Ann, but she didn’t know whether to look at me or the opening act. I was confused, too, and before I was sure whose turn it really was I told her how much pleasure her music had brought me. She kept bobbing her head trying to figure out where to look. Shortly it registered what I had said, and she said with surprise in a throaty voice, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She signed what I had in my hands and looked to the person in line behind me, so I took the hint and moved over in front of Nancy. She just took my item and began to sign it without looking up. I wasn’t sure what to say now, given that things had been so confused with Ann, so I just tried to catch her eyes. She finally noticed and looked at me. Her eyes were as blue as a spring sky, startling and lovely — but her pupils were the size of sharp pencil points. Those tiny dots fairly roared that there would be no friendly chitchat. I mumbled that it was a pleasure to meet her, and then stepped toward the handler and waited until everybody had their turn. After the handler took a photo of us all, we were escorted back to the lobby. Here’s a photo of my head next to Ann and Nancy’s heads from the group photo. The forehead between us belongs to the woman with the bright smile.

Me, Ann Wilson, and Nancy Wilson

Why didn’t I think to get a photo with Nick Bowcott?

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Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. Now, I’m sure I didn’t enjoy it when I got in trouble or got a shot. I’ll take his statements to mean, on the balance, he found me to be unusually joyful. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

Dad and son, 1970.

First, I watched Apollo 11 land on the moon on TV. I don’t actually remember the landing — I remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil, with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I excitedly pointed at the screen and said, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark while Dad dressed for work. Dad said I could be there as long as I didn’t wake up Mom. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

My next memories, of Kindergarten, are vivid and detailed. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups. Another part of the room had a tile floor, with an inlaid red circle big enough for the whole class to sit around, where the teacher read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down in that part of the room when we napped. Behind the teacher’s desk just off the red circle was a nook chock full of toys including a huge child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. The teacher was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside. Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but the teacher didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was not happy. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

What in the hell happened?

Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps my parents inadvertently or unintentionally squashed those parts of my personality that they couldn’t handle; psychologists say it happens to many children. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

The Wall, 1984

A clue came when I was 16. I was selected to spend a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. After my plane landed, it took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensely, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Duesseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged. I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. I thought, “Oh, gag,” then, and I think, “Oh, gag,” now. But as I’ve worked over the years on my various issues, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

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