Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

Grandma and Grandpa retired to a small lake, or rather a big pond, among the cornfields and hog farms in southwest Michigan. It was my favorite place in the world to go. Sitting in the gazebo overlooking the lake, staying up too late listening to stories of the Great Depression, and just running around here and there in Grandma’s big Chevy Blazer; it was a relaxed life. When we were out, we inevitably ended up at a bar for lunch. I guess in 1970s Michigan it wasn’t any big deal for children to go into bars, because I surely spent a lot of time in them.

We usually visited The Inn Between, a little joint on the highway at the end of their gravel road, “in between” two villages that highway linked. It was dim inside, with square tables with laminate woodgrain tops, brown padded stackable chairs, a wooden bar with a handful of stools, PBR and Budweiser signs on the walls, a jukebox in the corner. There was a menu, there was beer, there was probably whiskey but I didn’t know much about such things when I was that young.

Everybody at the Inn Between knew my grandparents. They’d walk up to say hello as we sat, calling them George and Kath-ern, which apparently is how Kathryn is pronounced in Michigan farm country. A fellow who must have run the place always came over to chat and take our order. My brother and I would order cheeseburgers, and I always got orange Crush, which in my earliest memories still had real orange pulp in it. The fellow would tease my brother and I a little, asking us if we’d like to try the frog legs instead. Our chorus of “ick, ew!” always made the fellow smile, at least until Grandma finally said, “You should try them. They’re delicious.” So we did, and they were, and we ate them often.

The Inn Between was on the same lake my grandparents lived on, so sometimes we’d motor over there for dinner on their little pontoon boat. We’d linger. Grandma and Grandpa would chat with the other customers, mostly neighbors, all friends. Grandma made sure our red plastic tumblers were always full of icy Coke, and fed us quarters for the jukebox.

In those days, country music was crossing over to the pop charts, and the jukebox was loaded with those songs. It’s where I first heard Olivia Newton-John and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I played them all, but I liked Glen Campbell the best. I played “Galveston” and “Country Boy” but leaned extra heavy on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Everybody drinking their beer at the Inn Between must have been glad when we left so they didn’t have to hear it again.

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But really, I have always favored the sad songs, and so my favorite Glen Campbell song is “Wichita Lineman.” And I have a bonus memory of my dad around this song. I couldn’t have been 10 yet. We sat in dad’s white Matador in the shopping-center parking lot waiting for Mom to come out of the store. The AM radio played the local music station. This song came on, and Dad sang the chorus low, mostly to himself. Dad can carry a tune. And I sing this song when my iPhone serves it up in my car, too, doing my best to channel Glenn Campbell. But I belt it right out, because it feels so good.

Click Play to listen to “Wichita Lineman.”

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Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Rod Stewart, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

I dated Alison the summer I turned 19. She was small and lovely and smart and gentle, and I was happy to keep her company.

And that’s all I really wanted: her companionship. I was such a late bloomer. I think she was interested in more. I’m sure I frustrated her.

At least we had old TV shows and music in common. Many of our evenings were spent snuggled on the couch in her parents’ family room in front of the TV. The Monkees was being rerun on MTV and we watched episode after episode. I made her cassette tapes of the six or seven Monkees albums my brother owned. I made her a mixtape of some of my favorite songs.

And then Alison made me a mixtape of her music, too. She favored singer-songwriters with something to say, their spare arrangements cradling words of love or pain. I don’t know what became of that tape, but I remember it leaned heavily on Carole King, Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Bob Dylan.

I found one Dylan song especially hard to access, a delicate tune called “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” It spoke of a love experienced as a refuge, a love in which he found identity — words that wanted to fill me with smoldering joy but for Dylan’s brooding guitar and voice, a sharp counterpoint that I couldn’t reconcile. If he had found that kind of love, then why did he sound like he wanted to put a bullet in his brain?

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I sought new music voraciously then. I had joined my college’s radio station as a disk jockey, and regularly borrowed short stacks of records from our vast collection — about 5,000 LPs — of rock, pop, and jazz reaching back 25 years. The songs I discovered then still heavily influence my personal playlist. One of those short stacks included Rod Stewart’s 1971 album Every Picture Tells a Story. I wasn’t a big Rod Stewart fan, but I remembered hearing “Maggie May” on the radio as a boy and wanted to hear the rest of the album that song came from. On it was a cover of Dylan’s love song. Where Dylan broods, Stewart soars, bringing out joy found in this love. He also makes the song more melodic and therefore a real joy to sing.

If Alison knew me at all, she would understand. But if I knew her at all, I’m sure she would tried to convince me of the strengths in Dylan’s recording.

Click Play to listen to “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.”

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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.

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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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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons — a stepson pushing 30 and two teens. I’ve been thinking back on their lives as one of my sons turns 18 today and is making transitions toward his adult life.

I was there when the younger two boys entered the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, and my fatherly duties naturally included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, both of them calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day, and make sure everybody around me does too,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountered everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

Yet colic plagued him the first nine months of his life. He’d start to feel bad by late afternoon each day, and by the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air-raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared to seek relief.

Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. You could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. So I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his mountain-climber sights on the couch’s arm, then the side table, and then the side-table’s lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires outpaced his abilities at first. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2012.

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Personal, Stories Told

Paul McCartney kind of saved my life once; he has no idea of course

I was away at my first year of engineering school working harder than ever before or since. My full class load was delivering six to ten hours of homework every night. I tried to keep up but it involved too many late nighters. My life consisted of meals, class, homework, and too little sleep. As my fatigue mounted I became increasingly isolated and my health began to suffer. I lost hope. I fell into a deep funk. I began thinking a lot about how I might be better off no longer walking around on the face of the Earth.

That’s when I came across this record.

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This is Paul McCartney’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up. He released it in 1970, but I first heard it 15 years later in my dorm room at the center of my despair. The music sounded spare; many mixes were rough and some songs seemed unfinished. The music gave a strong sense of a man shut away in a room, playing alone, trying to get his head together. Indeed, I learned later that Paul produced and engineered the album himself, and except for an occasional backing vocal from his wife Linda he played and sang every note.

McCartney’s signature musical move has always been to find a bright side even when the going is rough. This song, which closed side 1, is a perfect example. It led me to consider that after the Beatles ended, he released (at that time) more than a dozen albums and had given concerts all over the world. It had been impossible to listen to the radio and not hear his music! He’d done quite all right in the intervening years. I could see that perhaps so could I, and so perhaps I should push through. I did, and now I’m fine all the while.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2011.

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Music, Stories Told

New Paul McCartney music is always a big event in my life

For as long as I can remember, new Paul McCartney music has been a big event for me.

It started with the Beatles music my mother played around the house when I was very small. But McCartney’s post-Beatles work really formed the soundtrack of my life. Aged four, I sat at the breakfast table waiting for Mom to bring me breakfast while one of his early post-Beatles hits played on the little transistor radio atop our refrigerator. On long trips in Dad’s Ford, my brother and I used to sing his most famous songs a cappella together. I spent much of one youthful summer swimming while a monster hit he did with Wings played constantly on the radio. I danced at the big middle-school dance to his flamenco-charged nod to disco. During my disk-jockey days, I played his new songs on the radio. I sang his new songs to my new baby as he cried with colic. I let his words soothe me when I suffered my divorce. And I never failed to share his new songs with my sons, who can sing along with me now on a huge portion of the McCartney catalog.

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PaulMcCartney.com photo

And now comes his new album, New. It released yesterday. Thanks to Amazon.com I downloaded the music first thing yesterday morning and then a copy of the CD awaited me in my mailbox when I arrived home from work.

As always, I will listen to it incessantly in the car for the next several weeks. I will soak it in. I will learn the lyrics and sing along. It will come to remind me of this time in my life and the things I am experiencing now.

Paul McCartney never meant to save the world with his songs. He just wanted to craft some good, clever pop that kept our knees bobbing. He’s done it again, aged 71. Here’s the lyric video for the title track of New.

Paul McCartney saved my life once. He has no idea, of course. Read that story.

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