With a Song in My Heart: N is for…

“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – The Beatles, 1965.

My wife and I are fond of saying that adopting an older child is a bit like dating; you’re attempting to integrate another fully formed personality into your life, only without the option of ever deciding that you think you should see other people.  Our son came to us with likes and dislikes entrenched without much room for further influence by us, and one of the most frustrating aspects is his lack of interest in music.  It’s not entirely his fault, but rather a product of the different foster homes he grew up in, none of which apparently had so much as a radio in it.  From the perspective of someone who was practically nursed on classic rock & roll, it seems incomprehensible that a child could be brought up in this corner of the world without it, and we often sigh in disbelief when he gives us blank looks at the mention of legends like Buddy Holly and Little Richard.

When I was growing up that stuff was always playing somewhere in the background, whether at parties my parents would throw or as part of the oldies countdown on a lazy Sunday.  As soon as I figured out how to work the record player I’d comb through my father’s booklets of old 45′s and listen to artists like Del Shannon, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons obsessively (until the tragic day I dropped and broke his copy of “Walk Like a Man”).  Good grades aside, Dad was prouder that I could mimic the scratchy vocals in “Wooly Bully” and that I understood, unequivocally, that bird was the word.  At the age of eight I wondered why I must be a teenager in love, and never failed to compare the rising sun to a red rubber ball.  The merest out-of-context mention of two words that happened to appear next to one another in a lyric set would prompt me to offer an unrequested rendition of the entire related song.  It was glorious, and likely irritating as all get out to anyone outside the family.

Somewhere in this decade-long musical crash course, I found two albums that would kindle a lifelong love of those four lads from Liverpool.  One wasn’t even theirs.  This is going waaaaaay back so my friends born in the 80′s and onward will have no idea, but there used to be a group of professional impersonators called “Stars On” who would release disco medleys of popular songs.  The Stars On Long Play album’s A-side was snippets from about 20 Beatles songs stitched together with a dance beat.  Though whoever was imitating them sounded like the Beatles by way of the Swedish Chef, I listened to that cassette until the tape demagnetized.  Even in bowdlerized, Bee Gee’d form, something transcendent resonated within me when I would listen to those songs.  Like recognizing the voices of friends from a past life.  Fortunately, we did have a few copies of the genuine article, the most accessible being the double album compilation that was the Beatles’ Love Songs.  The cover resembled brown leather, and inside was a printed booklet on parchment featuring the lyrics in script.  For the young, slightly-obsessive Beatles fan, a treasure to be devoured.  25 selections of auditory bliss, none more so than track 3 on side two of the second disc.

“Norwegian Wood,” recorded in 1965, is a noteworthy (pun intended) Beatles song for a couple of reasons, the first being that it is said to be the first example of a song by a Western rock band to feature a sitar.  Second, the Beatles’ output to that point especially as concerning the subject of love had been focused largely on promises of undying devotion or pleas to avoid heartbreak.  This song is about an affair, carried on without remorse.  Of course, it’s not like young me would have had any way of understanding that.  At first your concept of love is that you meet someone, you marry her, you have kids and you stay together forever.  The movie version, essentially.  You don’t comprehend the complexities and nuances of emotions and the mad and often despicable things love and lust can drive you to.  How could you – you’re just a kid, swaying back and forth to the triple time rhythm and giggling at the part where John Lennon sings that he “crawled off to sleep in the bath.”  And the part at the end where he burns down his lover’s flat by setting fire to her Norwegian wood furniture goes right over your head.  But that doesn’t matter, and when other kids your age are warbling off-key and arrhythmic renditions of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to the applause of beaming relatives, you offer this number instead.  Your relatives cringe as you croon in a little boy’s voice about biding your time and drinking her wine.  And your dad’s grin is as wide as the room.

From time to time we’ll have the music going and ask our son if he can guess who’s singing.  His default answer, if it’s a male singer, is the Beatles.  I’ve played the albums for him from time to time, looking perhaps to recreate the conditions by which the same fascination may be sparked – so far without much success.  It saddens me a little to realize that he may not ever share this particular passion, and that I have to be okay with it.  Every so often, though, I’ll catch him humming something he may have overheard, a few stray notes that are indeed Beatlesque, and I’ll smile, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before I find him at the computer, playing “Norwegian Wood” and looking up the lyrics.  Isn’t it good.

With a Song in My Heart: M is for…

“Maneater” – Hall & Oates, 1982.

Mondegreen is the word for the phenomenon that has plagued music since the dawn of recorded sound:   the misinterpretation of mumbled lyrics to mean something other than what was intended.  If you’ve ever sung “scuse me while I kiss this guy” to “Purple Haze,” “there’s a bathroom on the right” to “Bad Moon Rising” or pretty much anything to “Louie Louie,” congratulations, you’re a mondegreener.  The term was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay after her mishearing of the line “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen,” in the 17th Century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and it seems that so long as vocalists continue to sing with marbles their mouths, mondegreens are ensured a healthy reign.  Bob Dylan’s output alone contains enough potential mondegreens to leave several small countries scratching their heads and rewinding to give it another listen.  More on this in a minute.

My father’s enormous vinyl record collection was a sampler of some of the greatest rock & roll ever written and performed.  His expertise in the two decades of music spanning the Eisenhower to Nixon years was unsurpassed.  I remember once playing the “RPM” version of Trivial Pursuit with him, which had a category called “After the Beatles,” spanning the era following their breakup.  He’d always struggle to get those ones correct, and he once commented that it was because it was such a terrible time for music.  Anything from the 50′s or 60′s, however, he knew cold.  The “Lookin’ Back” dance parties held by local radio station CKFM were annual appointments for him and my mother, with my sister and I left with a babysitter (one of whom made me watch Tommy, traumatizing me for life with the baked beans exploding over Ann-Margret) while they tore up the floor to the jukebox standards that continued to fire the souls of the baby boomers with nostalgia for proms and sock hops.  For my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, Dad drew on his archive to create his gift of a themed playlist:  Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” and the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” among others, and again this was back when that meant carting records and reel-to-reels from house to house in a couple of banker’s boxes.  He was an attorney by trade, but a DJ at heart.

Being his son meant absorbing that passion as well, learning the legendary songs of his past and discovering the new music of our present together in the form of cassettes loaded into the car stereo on long drives to Blue Jays games, with gems as varied as Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the Footloose soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the collected works of Hall & Oates, specifically their album Rock & Soul, Part 1 (there never was a part 2.)  This is where we return to the subject of mondegreens.  Back in those days, of course (to channel Grampa Simpson a little) there was no Lyrics.com to visit if you didn’t catch the middle eight in “I Want a New Drug,” you just had to listen over and over again and try to discern the meaning.  That is, if you cared.  Dad didn’t.  His love of singing was about the feel of the music and not the substance of the words, so, half-heard verses were substituted with fantastic inventions coming not within a light-year of their actual meaning, or general sense for that matter.  “Trouble wander cheek new see behind me” was the placeholder for “Devil and the deep blue sea behind me” in the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”  And Daryl Hall’s perfectly logical “The woman is wild, ooh” from the song that lends itself to the title of this post transmogrified between my father’s ears into “poobulasquaw, ooooh.”  (A million quatloos to anyone who can divine a reasonable-sounding explanation of what that means.)

I’d roll my eyes and sigh, “Daaaaaaad,” but the truth is that his fanciful interpretations were far more memorable than whatever the artist had recorded in the first place.  I recall looking at the liner notes of a Seal album once where he was asked why he didn’t publish his lyrics, and his rationale was that music was supposed to be more about how it was received rather than how it was meant, and that he had no business stepping on what people felt he was singing by providing a definitive answer.  In retrospect I think my father always knew the lyrics, and for him, getting them wrong was mere spirited improvisation; having fun and seeing if his often literal-minded boy would notice.  Today, “Maneater” is the song that reminds me it’s okay to color outside the lines, that imaginative speculation can sometimes outdo whatever The Man has decided the correct answer is.  And Seal was right – Daryl Hall and John Oates by no means intended “Maneater” to be a song that could help recall a bond between a father and his son.  We added that ourselves and made the result something greater than the sum of its parts.  Let us then continue to celebrate the mondegreen as the spirit of human invention, where even our mistakes can bring forth genius, or at the very least, a good laugh and a treasured memory.

With a Song in My Heart: L is for…

“The Lady in Red” – Chris de Burgh, 1986.

I’d be curious as to how many people out there reading this who were born in the 80′s or later know who Chris de Burgh is.  He’s an Irish performer, with more than a passing resemblance to the Monkees’ Davy Jones (it’s probably the bowl cut and the thick eyebrows) who had a string of inoffensive soft rock hits mid-decade, with this one considered to be his signature.  His fanbase tended to be older women, and certainly my mom swooned every time she heard his trembling, faintly-accented tones emerge from the car radio speakers, but I don’t get the sense that anyone below 40 in that era would dare to be caught buying one of his albums.  That did not stop him from making the playlists of the DJs hired to run primary school dances.  Just as well, too, for on a warm spring evening in 1987, “The Lady in Red” began playing at one of them, and a beautiful young girl named Karin asked a shy boy clinging to the wall if he’d like to dance with her.  Surprised, enthralled, bewitched, and somewhat disbelieving, I nonetheless said yes.

I followed Karin to an empty place on the floor amidst the other couples.  She leaned in, slid confident hands up my back and lay her head against my chest.  My shaking fingers found the small of her back and I held her, unsure of how much pressure was too much, or not enough.  Mindful of chaperoning teachers pacing the perimeter ensuring that nothing inappropriate was transpiring, terrified I’d do something stupid to make her bolt.  We shifted in an awkward circle in hug-and-shuffle style, I stared off into the distance while catching breaths of her scent; this intoxicating blend of shampoo and perfume that must have been, to my eleven-year-old mind, how angels smelled.  I don’t remember what she was wearing, or what I was wearing, but I remember the feel of her next to me.  Warm, soft, assertive yet fragile at the same time.  The lyrics were suitable:  “And I hardly know this beauty by my side.”  I’d never had a conversation with Karin before.  Had she spoken to me in another setting I probably would have been too tongue-tied to form anything as significant as words.  She had seemed, at least to my way of thinking, one of those unapproachable goddesses who was forever the domain of someone smarter, cooler and better-looking.  But here, the goddess had taken pity on the mortal wallflower and blessed him with a few moments of her time.  Apparently, thanks to the power of Chris de Burgh.  Maybe my mom was on to something.

It likely surprises no one to learn that my romantic history leading up to my first meeting with the woman who would become my wife was a tragicomic folly of false starts, chances missed, errant choices and just plain cowardice.  The main problem for me was always that I would build up things in my head to be more dramatic and serious than they needed to be, while my heart labored away on crushes that were either never acted upon or would flame out into awkward embers.  I never had much of a problem interacting with girls and women; to this day I tend to get along better with them than with my own gender.  I could be charming in one moment and leave them doubled over with laughter in the next.  Closing the deal, that is, moving from friendship to relationship, was where I’d flounder.  I’m sure of at least five instances (and I could provide names, but I don’t want to freak them out if they Google me) where my failure to act – out of a worry that a misguided step forward would destroy the existing friendship – led to an evaporation of interest from the girl.  My admiration of women coupled with a guttered self-esteem made me place the girls I liked on pedestals I couldn’t possibly hope to reach.  It didn’t matter that some of them seemed to like me too; who was I to dare to presume I had any business asking them out.  Again, that was for the guys who always knew what to say and what to wear, the guys with the sculpted abs they pretended to be bashful about showing off, the guys who were born with a clue.  Not this pimpled dork who had to try three times as hard just to be noticed, and always settled for the lonely practice of idolizing from afar.

It was not until much later in life that I managed to connect those elusive dots, and my heart’s voice grew loud and strong enough to be able to tell my doubting brain to shut the eff up and kiss her already.  It might not have been the best time to try to kiss Karin as those four minutes of bliss in 1987 spiraled to their end, but would the world have ended had I, at a later moment, found her in the hallways and said, “hey, I was wondering if you’d like to see a movie with me some time”?  Even if she had said no thank you, at least it would have been a shot taken.  And there were a lot of Karins in the years that followed.  Many ladies in red sauntering into my life and dancing just as gracefully out of my grasp.  Some I am even still friends with, the crushes of long ago long since abated.  It isn’t about wishing that I’d had the chance to have more sex, and it certainly isn’t to suggest that I’m not ultimately with the greatest partner I could ever have hoped to find.  “The Lady in Red” is a reminder of my first dance, and the beginning of a time in my life that could have been richer had I had the cojones to seize what was often right in front of me, doubts be damned.  I don’t believe in the idea that some people never get a break – breaks are always there, and it’s our stupid, self-pitying little fears that obstruct our view and leave us forlorn and regretful.  It’s not the best use of one’s precious time here in this continuum.  (Maybe it makes us better writers; that decision is your prerogative, not mine.  I know at times I would prefer a sumptuous life to a sumptuous vocabulary.)

If nothing else, this is my chance to thank Karin, wherever she is now, and let her know how special that dance was, and that I’ll always be grateful.  It is true; you never forget your first lady in red.

With a Song in My Heart: K is for…

“Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine, 1992.

Surprised you a little with this one, did I?  Not exactly fitting the mold of what’s come before, but nonetheless evocative of a chunk of life that was formative if not necessarily pleasant.  Twenty years ago this fall, I entered university for the first time.  After coming to terms with high school and managing to forge something of an identity for myself, it was time to sponge off the blackboard and start over from the bottom with new people in a foreign environment – you know, the perfect circumstance for an introspection-minded introvert with only a few close friends, each of whom had decamped to a different life and future.  I had not felt this out of place since, well, ever, and as much as I craved connection, the new fishbowl offered few guppies I had any desire to swim with.  At uni (as my British friends would say), things started off badly enough when I was stuck in my last choice of residences – the sole remaining all-male hall on campus.  Frosh week there, by order of the sophs (second-years) mandated dressing daily in a progressively sweatier ridiculous skull cap/T-shirt/shorts combination, eschewing showers, screaming slogans and saturating one’s blood with beer and shots each night.  Let’s just pause and ask, based on what you’ve read of my work here and elsewhere, if you think this sounds like my scene in the slightest.

As the week ambled on, I was taken aback repeatedly by the apparent downgrade to group Neanderthalism that had accompanied the step up in educational stature.  My assigned roommate, Sanjeev, was nice enough, but we had very little in common apart from being relatively quiet non-smokers, and we wound up spending the year ignoring each other.  It was not as easy to ignore the cabal of cretins on the rest of the floor, however; the sorts who would put songs like this one or anything from the Beastie Boys’ oeuvre on repeat, crank the volume past eleven, lock their doors and go out for the night.  Sanjeev had an acquaintance he’d made there whom I recall only as “Assman,” for his gripping account of an encounter at a campus party:  “I was dancing with this chick, and she put her hands on my ass, and I had the biggest f—ing hard-on.”  This erudite raconteur was actually one of the more tolerable personalities there.  An inexplicably popular protozoan who got into the school apparently by sole virtue of his ability to not drop a thrown football, was fond of offering the following rationale when cajoling mates to join him at the local bar:  “You’ll get your d— sucked.”  (I am sorry about the language, but I’m not going to pretend it was a G-rated environment.)  The lot fancied themselves a horde of badasses sticking it to the man by chugging through every available keg to the sounds of Zack de la Rocha opining over Tom Morello’s thrashing guitar on whether or not he would do what you told him.

The idea of rebellion against authority has fascinated me for years, never more so than then, because we seem to be constantly readjusting downward the scale by which being a “rebel” is defined – to the point that a rebel can be merely someone who wears mismatched socks.  At that time, listening to loud, angry music, peppering your dialect with a plethora of F-bombs and spurning personal hygiene was enough, not to mention threatening to throw a punch at anyone who looked at you twice (the guy at the top of the pecking order at our residence was known for this latter trait; I just remember that he walked funny.)  This is, of course, while having your parents pay a significant portion of your inheritance toward your attendance at an establishment facility of higher learning.  Che Guevara got nothin’ on them folks, right?  Most of the drooling jackanapes made fun of me without mercy because I was the reserved, mannered English and film major who couldn’t participate in their conversations because he knew nothing about hockey statistics and didn’t care to engage in misogynist speculations on the quality of the ass of the rare female who wandered into our cafeteria.  (I kid you not, every time a girl from the neighboring all-female residence strolled in, the ambient noise level dropped about fifty decibels, and every pair of eyes shot immediately in her direction.  It was positively Pavlovian, not that any of these guys would have understood that reference.)  But they considered themselves rebels because… why, exactly?  What part of Rage Against the Machine’s message did they ever emulate?  Were they going to mouth off at their professors and refuse to write their term papers?  Raise the freakin’ flag, boys, let’s go storm the Bastille.  “Killing in the Name” was appropriated soon after its release by the worst of the posers, effectively neutering it.  Just like the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party” was embraced by the jock culture that didn’t realize that song was actually making fun of them.

Everyone has something of a rebellious streak in them; it’s part of our nature to chafe against constraints, no matter how comfortable we might otherwise be.  What I have always found distasteful is those who pretend at rebelliousness while conforming to a media stereotype (crafted, ironically, by corporations in order to sell you things) of what being a rebel is supposed to mean.  Wannabe Fonzies with preserved faux-leather jackets and pierced, upturned noses.  In point of fact, the most truly rebellious people I know wear suits and ties to their “establishment” jobs.  A real rebel doesn’t waste breath on advertising it.  The guys in my first year university residence were a joke, fueling their self-applied image on the mistaken concept that playing ROTM to deafness-inducing levels was the only action required, because – ooh! – there were swears in it.  I’m sure the majority of them have since settled into happy family lives and regular nine-to-fives, and Rage Against the Machine has been usurped on the playlist by Maroon 5 and Pitbull.  Many of them probably achieved their degrees.  Karmically, the most egregious of the bunch were “Christmas grads,” flunking first term and departing prior to the resumption of classes in January, not that they were missed.  Cue the Nelson Muntz laugh.

While I wasn’t bullied in my residence, and I did ultimately find one or two guys I could at least have a non-hockey-or-ass-related conversation with, I was dismissed by the great unwashed (literally – the body odor on some of those floors was practically an independent lifeform) as an outsider, a square, someone who refused to run with the pack.  I initiated my own private rebellion in Frosh Week by waking up early to make sure I could (horrors!) shower every morning, and by day three I abandoned the planned activities in favor of dignified clothing and exploration of the campus on my own, getting on with the chief reason for being there.  It did not stand me in good stead with the rest of them, but quite frankly, my attitude at that point was was, “f*** you, I won’t do what you tell me.”  I needed to be who I was and not force myself into the artificial fraternity the sophs were trying to forge using methods more suited to a summer camp for juvenile offenders.  We were all better than that; at least I thought so.

But maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I was just a snob.  Maybe some of the others formed lifelong friendships over pints and crude jokes.  Maybe the girl who gave Assman the hard-on of his life is the mother of his three beautiful children.  Maybe in rebelling against all the shenanigans, I missed out on something wonderful.  I deeply doubt it, but the possibility lingers.  I do have plenty of regrets about this time in my life, about opportunities lost and paths not taken, but what I never question is my choice to avoid conforming to the group mentality and to remain true to who I was when I first arrived.  It wasn’t always easy, but it was necessary.  And whoever would have imagined that simply being yourself would be the rebellious thing to do.

With a Song in My Heart: J is for…

“The James Bond Theme,” The John Barry Orchestra, 1962.

Another day, another obvious song choice?  What can I say, folks, you know me so well.  This is the original version, written by Monty Norman, arranged and performed by John Barry and his orchestra for the debut of the 007 series, Dr. No, fifty-two years ago.  Interestingly enough in that movie’s opening credits sequence the theme is chopped up and rearranged to suit the transitions of the animations and the captions, but the revolutionary sound remains:  Vic Flick’s electric guitar, drenched in reverb, racing through a surf-rock-inspired lick that to this day is an indication that something mind-blowingly cool is about to happen.  Never has another leitmotif offered that sort of guarantee, still valid after all these decades.

Although John Barry’s is the name most associated with the “Bond sound,” the film series has been through a good assortment of composers during its tenure, each of whom has attempted to leave his individual echo behind.  Beatles producer George Martin was the first to follow in Barry’s footsteps, offering funk and jazz-flute stylings to Roger Moore’s debut Live and Let Die.  The renowned Marvin Hamlisch, fresh off Oscar wins in the mid-70′s, gave The Spy Who Loved Me a fusion of traditional grand orchestra and disco, a trend explored to its somewhat ridiculous end with Rocky composer Bill Conti’s work on For Your Eyes Only in 1981.  At the end of the 80′s, it seemed you could not have an action movie without Michael Kamen at the conductor’s podium, and so Licence to Kill accordingly inhabits the world of Kamen’s Die Hard and Lethal Weapon work with plenty of Latin flavor for the plot revolving around South American drug lords.  French composer Eric Serra attempted to relaunch Bond in 1995 with his unique synthesizer-based approach, leading a significant number of fans to jam cotton in their ears and clamor for a return to the ways of days past.  David Arnold’s assumption of music duties for five straight films beginning in 1997 brought the orchestra back to the forefront, but layered with computerized rhythm tracks in accordance with the lightning pace that movie audiences now demanded of their chase scenes.  Most recently, Thomas Newman’s complex, dignified, by turns stately and others relentless style in Skyfall led to the first major awards nominations for Bond music in decades.  Throughout these evolutions, though, the James Bond Theme has remained the vital ingredient, no matter what form it finds itself rearranged into.  You can’t have a Bond movie without the Bond theme – a lesson learned well by the makers of the clumsy, half-hearted Never Say Never Again.

The James Bond Theme, like the hero who struts across the screen in his tuxedo as it plays, is a reassuring constant.  Though it may flex and stretch in reaction to or in anticipation of the times, it remains unbreakable, unmalleable.  Play it on a guitar, on a piano, with a host of trumpets, on a set of bongos; the true feel of it never changes.  Everyone knows how it’s supposed to go; everyone can hum a few bars when asked.  Like so many of our greatest songs, it belongs to everyone, to a multitude of moments.  For me the Bond theme can evoke either waiting for my father to come home on a Friday night with a Betamax rental of Diamonds are Forever, or parking myself on the couch with my son to watch a Blu-Ray of Quantum of Solace.  It can make me stand a bit straighter, cock my eyebrow and offer a risible pun while watching gin and vodka pour from an ice-cold martini shaker.  I know I’ll never be James Bond (nor would I really want to, as I’m fully aware that his lifestyle is destructive to the soul) but I can model myself after the best of what he represents:  confidence, taste, refinement and charm.  For a character dreamed up by one author crouched over a typewriter in sweaty Jamaican heat to become a cultural icon outlasting any pretenders to the throne, he must be able to touch something primal in our minds, to tap into aspirations we didn’t even know we had.  As we grow older and watch this character evolve with us, his theme song becomes connective tissue between the dreams of wide-eyed youth and the nostalgia of the adult.  An unbroken line from which we can pluck any memory we wish to relive, any old wish we feel like dusting off and setting out into the world, just to see what might happen.

Going to the movies is one of the last things we do as a group in our society these days – inasmuch as social media has made connection easier, that connection is still for the most part one person sitting alone with a device, interacting with digital data.  However, when you are sitting in an audience and that electric guitar fires up, you can sense the shot of adrenaline jolting through the veins of everyone around you.  Everyone gets it.  Everyone knows what everyone is thinking and feeling about it, and we can smile at each other in recognition.  You’re in this collective of shared cool, and it’s an experience whose frequency is diminishing as the years creak on.  But it will linger as one of the last vestiges of such things, welcomed every few years with the newest installment.  When Warren Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he said he hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie.  One needs offer little more than that as affirmation.  Bond, and his theme song, are forever – as are we.

With a Song in My Heart: I is for…

“Imagine” – John Lennon, 1971.

I doubt there is a soul reading this entry who’s followed my work and finds this choice surprising.  You could even argue that it’s the safe choice, the obvious choice.  Lennon again.  A few more fawning paragraphs about his immortal brilliance, as if I haven’t said enough about him already.  I do find myself growing a bit self-conscious whenever I drop in a Lennon reference, no matter how oblique, but the fact of the matter is that he and his music linger each day at the edge of perception, seeping into actions, words and deeds like an ethos that informs every moral choice.  I can’t point to a single event in my life that “Imagine” evokes because it’s always been there, like a continuous score for a movie whose running time is 38 years and counting.  Like the lyric says, I’m not the only one who thinks so.  President Jimmy Carter once said that in the many countries he’s visited, he has heard it being used equally with national anthems – imagine there’s no countries indeed.  (Given that a majority of the world’s national anthems are about war, it seems only right to have a dovish counterargument.)  So I suspect there’s meager appetite for a critical dissection of the chord structure, the history of the composition and the words; more scholarly scribes have covered this territory with far more accomplished diction.  We’ll go another way.

Isn’t it a bit ironic, the question might be asked, for a person who has lost so many of the important people in his life – some at a very early age, no less – to embrace a song whose first line is “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”?  The simple answer is yeah, people are walking contradictions.  The deeper answer goes more to the essence of faith and belief and whether or not one’s ability to grieve demands a contrived Judeo-Christian image of departed relatives lounging on clouds and strumming harps.  Baptized Anglican, my gradual disillusionment with religion was like the disintegration of a finely woven tapestry, its threads pulled away one at a time by doubt and dissatisfaction with pat answers to lingering spiritual questions.  I didn’t care for bromides like “your dad’s in a better place now.”  No he bloody well isn’t, the better place is here with his wife and his children.  When my frail grandmother died almost a decade later, the weak sauce offered at the funeral was “your grandmother has been made young and strong in the embrace of the Lord.”  Like a salesman telling his mark exactly what they wanted to hear, to close the deal.  And I wasn’t in the mood to buy.  With age I understand now why those lines are delivered in those moments, but back then they did nothing but stoke anger and resentment at the whole enterprise.  I rejected attempts at comfort or counselling because I quite honestly thought the whole world was full of shit.  It was quite easy to imagine there was no heaven.  I didn’t even have to try.  Lennon got it, though.  He dared us to imagine living for today because there weren’t nothin’ waiting round the next bend.

When Pat Tillman died, a bunch of famous politicians showed up at his funeral and spouted the usual script about Tillman being taken to the Lord’s side.  Tillman’s brother took the dais and called them out on it, asking them to keep their religion to themselves and reminding them that Pat had been an atheist and that as far as Pat’s beliefs were concerned, “he’s f—in’ dead.”  There is this tendency for human beings to handle loss by pretending that it isn’t really a loss after all.  That the deceased have merely changed lodging arrangements.  They’re just living one universe over, but there’s no reliable wi-fi between there and here.  We don’t really seem capable of being able to process the concept that something can be present in one minute and utterly vanished from existence in the next.  Instead we imagine an otherworldy waystation, and that some day we’ll catch up to those who’ve gone ahead.  The better we behave while we’re here, the better our chances of a good seat in the great beyond.

John Lennon says no, this is all there is.  While one might initially be inclined to think of that in a negative connotation, I choose to see it as quite hopeful.  Here, in this life, we have everything we’ll need.  Because it contains everything that ever was and ever will be.  The cosmos is the greatest recycler – new worlds are born from the deaths of the old.  Every atom in your body and in the chair you’re sitting in and the air you’re breathing and even the words you’re reading right now came from a supernovaed star and will still be here long after they have ceased to exist in their present state.  People die and are transformed.  Physicality becomes memory, and the impact of action becomes imprinted in history.  The music remains embedded in the record even after the needle has been removed.  Footprints on the soft, malleable continuum of time are immune to the wash of the tide.

So can you imagine there’s no heaven and still consider yourself a spiritual person?  Maybe that’s one contradiction too many for some, but it’s what I’ve considered myself to be.  There is a magnificence to the universe that moves me.  Throughout the chaos, patterns emerge, and their perfection is, for lack of a less obvious term, musical.  My mind grows restless at the idea of settling on an answer provided for me by thousands of years of dogma; I would rather search out my own, and spend life imagining possibilities and connecting with those who fancy the notion of life as this ongoing quest, with all the supplies we require laid out before us in a limitless bounty.  Living for today, and in peace.

I hope someday you’ll join me.

With a Song in My Heart: H is for…

“Hotel California” – Eagles, 1977.

“Hotel California” is not a song I like very much.  That’s something of an understatement, really.  I detest it.  The hatred began as a seed of indifference, nourished by decades of hearing it overplayed on the radio, oversung off-key at karaoke bars, over-requested at weddings and over-selected on pool hall jukeboxes, blossoming finally into a putridly fragrant flower of pure, embittered, soul-deep loathing.  Even hints of the first tinny, ear-scraping chords are enough to send me into paroxysms of bile-spitting fury, questioning how anyone could possibly endure this egregious example of rock & roll wallowing in its own crapulence yet again.  And I know I’m in the minority opinion, as there are millions who consider it one of the finest rock songs ever written.  Rolling Stone magazine ranks it 49th on their list of the 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs of All Time.  Myself, if I have to hear the insipid banality of the warm smell of colitas or sweet summer sweat or prisoners of our own device one more time, I may punch something.  You know when I laugh the loudest at The Big Lebowski?

theeffineagles

Yep, right there.  As an aside, there’s a story to this:  The infamous Allen Klein was planning on charging the Coen Brothers $150,000 to use Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits, which would have broken the movie’s music budget.  When Klein saw this scene, he erupted in a fit of gut-busting laughter and told the Coens they could have “Dead Flowers” for free.  So even though I rue realizing I have anything in common with Allen Klein, on this point he and I are in complete agreement.  And before you ask, yes, Dad had a worn copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Mom loved Glenn Frey, so clearly that was one trait that skipped a generation.  (My son does not know who the Eagles are so perhaps we’ve broken the cycle – now I need to cure him of his fixation with Nickelback.)

At this point you are wondering, why on earth is this song on the list?

In July 2008, just after a certain junior Senator from Illinois secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, my wife announced that she’d purchased tickets to the upcoming Eagles show in Toronto, part of their Long Road Out of Eden Tour.  It is a common occurrence in marriage, I suspect, that from time to time one partner must work on feigning excitement in something that the other is bubbling with enthusiasm over.  “We’re going to see the Eagles” was about as scintillating to me as suggesting that we attend a three-hour dramatic reading of Canada’s federal tax code.  I chewed through my tongue to prevent quoting the above-noted Lebowski moment and said “great!” while simultaneously invoking my inner weasel to think of legitimate reasons to not attend.  Still, I knew it was important to her, and I reconciled with the idea by reasoning that the Eagles were considered in some circles to be legends, and that seeing them live would be something to tick off the proverbial liste de seau.  I’d just have to endure the visions of a bunch of aging 70′s rock fans swaying on replaced hips to that damnable song for 7 interminable minutes.

The date arrives, we find our way to the venue and take our seats.  It’s the first time I can recall that I’ve never felt the slightest twinge of anticipation about a concert.  This should be a big deal, and it isn’t.  I’m wasting a seat someone else who will enjoy these guys even a modicum more could be otherwise making better use of.  No matter though, I’m here and I’ve gotta get through this.  I’ve gotta choke this down like that childhood plate of brussel sprouts.  The lights go down, the crowd roars, and the Eagles take the stage.  Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit walk out attired in matching dark suits, pick up their instruments, check their amps and start to play.

And they rock.

By the second song I’m sold.  They’re incredible.  They play with the studied, impeccable craftsmanship acquired only by those who’ve been at it for forty years.  They banter together and with the audience with the healthy self-deprecation that is earned only by a life hard-lived and knocks well-taken.  (Glenn Frey, introducing “Take it to the Limit,” or as he calls it, the ‘credit card song:’  “I’d like to dedicate this to my first wife, or as I call her, Plaintiff.”)  They blow the typically reserved Canadian audience back against the wall with nothing but tunes and talent.  Joe Walsh even earns some hometown cred (or cheap applause, if you will) by donning a Maple Leafs cap for a couple of numbers.  Running through a healthy combination of Eagles classics, covers, selections from their respective solo careers and material from the new album, the Eagles, for lack of a better word, fly.  It’s one of the tightest, most accomplished, most exciting shows I’ve ever seen.  No messing about with pyrotechnics or stage diving or bollocks political posturing.  Just four gifted guys bringing their best, seasoned game.  This is a shimmering blade of rock and roll forged with an expert hammer and polished to a perfect shine.

Naturally, there comes an inevitable point midway through the song list.  Those all-too-recognizable tinny chords start twanging.  The crowd loses it.  As Don Henley invokes the dark desert highway, my wife gives me a knowing look, and I smile.  Yeah, okay.  This isn’t so bad.

Since that night, “Hotel California” has been a lesson in humility for me.  A reminder to temper my opinions, to crawl back from the edges of extremism and recognize that the truth lies somewhere in the mushy middle.  It’s one thing to hate a particular song, or movie, or any work of art, really, but there are precious few instances where that can lead legitimately to a complete dismissal of the artist as a worthwhile creative force.  There is usually some value to be found in everything, and in the cases where there isn’t, it’s not worth giving those sorts more than a microsecond of our precious consideration.  Music preference, and by extension the professional criticism of same, has always been about strong opinions, but the danger is in letting ourselves get caught up in how much this band is infallible while this other one sucks beyond redemption.  It’s hardly worth the rise in blood pressure, especially when – as the Eagles proved for me – you can still occasionally find yourself pleasantly surprised, and well and truly rocked.

With a Song in My Heart: G is for…

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John, 1973.

A song that for its performer was the hope of remaining himself as his star rose ever higher, for me has a more literal meaning in that it summons recollections of the by turns pitted asphalt and by other turns smooth concrete curves of Interstate 75, the artery by which thousands of Canadian snowbirds flock each year from their wintry, igloo-bedecked homeland (at least if you believe the propaganda) the seventeen hundred miles to the palm trees and orange groves of Florida.  Cast a glance out the window on the southbound lane and you’ll no doubt spot dozens of minivans or sedans crammed to bursting with holiday gear and restless kids kicking the backs of the parents’ seats.  It’s a rite of passage for families in this part of the world, as it was for my family, at least once a year, usually over Easter.  Though my parents shared the driving, my father’s heaping piles of mixtapes were the music of choice, with this particular tune conjuring a visceral image of an empty road just after sunrise, bellies full of the “kids eat free!” breakfast from the exit ramp Days Inn, and the trees and mountains of Tennessee blurring into streaks of green beyond the cold glass.

What lay beyond the Yellow Brick Road?  My grandmother’s winter home in Englewood, on the Gulf Coast just a few miles south of Sarasota.  It was, and probably still is, a sleepy community of retirees who live in converted mobile homes built on trail-like roads that wind their way between tiny ponds.  The waterfowl that lend their names to the streets flock lazily amidst the bulrushes and the tall marsh grasses, eager for a crumb of bread from a passerby.  A mile from my Nana’s old place on Mallard Drive was Englewood Beach, where I spent hours combing the surf for shark’s teeth and curious seashells and got my first severe sunburn – never again would I fail to apply sunscreen to the backs of my knees.  There was also the shopping plaza with a Beall’s, a Publix (home of my favorite yogurt) and an Eckerd Drugs.  An innocent’s perception of Oz, but more than enough to seem like a slice of paradise.

Getting there was a dervish of anticipation and scrupulous attention paid to each detail of the voyage.  It’s interesting that I have almost no memory of the return trips, except perhaps the resignation that pervaded the last night in Emerald City with the long road that beckoned beyond dawn’s first light, and the envy of those who could stay behind.  The southbound adventure, on the other hand, is replete with trivia; loading up the Griswold-mobile in the bleakness of the cold Ontario morning on day one, the dry stretch down to the Ambassador Bridge crossing at Detroit, the transition into the wide-eyed novelty of the UNITED STATES.  Woohoo!  Gallons instead of litres.  Miles instead of kilometres.  Bright red-and-blue highway signs instead of our modest old white ones.  Amoco and Chevron and Exxon stations instead of Petro-Canadas, Shells and Essos.  Billboards every hundred yards announcing how far you were from the next McDonald’s, or how much John Q. Lawyer could win for you if you were injured in a workplace accident.  It was all waiting past Exit 83, Next Right.

Even the most mundane aspects became objects of fascination to a young brain determined to soak it all up.  Counting down the mile markers to the state lines and noting how quickly Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee would slip by, versus the endless slogs through Ohio and worst of all, Georgia.  No offense to Georgians, but when you’re eight or nine and it’s not your final destination, man does it take forever, especially that Atlanta bypass.  Endless curiosity about the varying quality of the highway rest areas, depending on the state:  some full-fledged, full-service stopovers, others little more than a turnout, porta-potty and lone rotting picnic bench.  An almost OCD-like need to collect paper directories from the Days Inns, memorize their locations nationwide and wonder why we didn’t have any back home (we do now, not that I’ve stayed at one since).  Dinners at the Cracker Barrel and trying without success to conquer the jump-a-tee puzzle placed at each table before diving into something accompanied by biscuits and sausage gravy, to my mother’s chagrin.  My sister’s innocent query, as we passed through the Bible Belt, of what was with the all the pictures of the guy hanging on the post.

And always, there was the road, and Elton John singing about what lay beyond it.  It was a perfectly prophetic number for where we were going, even if the end of the journey wasn’t anything life-changing or evolutionary – truly, how many family vacations are?  Still, the song itself is about a return to simplicity, leaving the penthouse behind and going back to the plough.  The fact that I recall with clarity such minutiae from these yearly adventures – moreso than what we did once we actually got there – speaks to the notion that you can find great joy in that simplicity, that fancying it up with expensive hotel rooms, front row seats and $500 rounds of golf doesn’t necessarily make for lasting memories.  Maybe you just need a reasonably reliable car, a loving family, and a yellow brick road.

With a Song in My Heart: F is for…

“The Fool on the Hill” – The Beatles, 1967.

Once dismissed by a critic as a “most unworthy Beatles standard,” and certainly not one that gets any regular airplay, “The Fool on the Hill” makes my list for a single shining reason:  it was my father’s favorite Beatles song.  When he was alive I didn’t give a lot of thought to why people liked certain things and not others, so it never occurred to me to ask him his rationale for preferring this song over some of the more popular Beatle hits.  When I picture him singing – as he did, whenever possible, and loudly – this is the chorus I hear:

“But the fool on the hill

Sees the sun going down

And the eyes in his head

See the world spinning round.”

Paul McCartney once said that the song was about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (prior to the Beatles’ disillusionment with him), or, more generally, the idea of the man who sits off by himself and is thought of as lesser by his peers because of his methods or appearance, but who regardless appears to have all the answers – or at least thinks he does.  I’ve attempted to speculate as to why the lyric appealed to my father so much.  Did he see himself in the song?  Did he feel like that ostracized outsider watching the world turn on its merry way without including him?  Or did he just like the melody?  It could very well have been the latter.  My father dragged us to church each Sunday, yet the Bible was never spoken of at home, nor were we expected to pray, or even do the barest minimum of saying grace except at large family holiday gatherings.  No, Dad went to church so he had an excuse to belt out hymns at the top of his lungs.  It didn’t matter that he didn’t appear convinced of the message in those hymns; for him it was the sensory reverie of notes flowing from the larynx and reverberating from nave to narthex.  Mostly that came from his own mother – more on that when we get to “Q” – but you got the sense from my father that singing was the only time he ever felt truly free, and song choice was irrelevant.

Back to “The Fool on the Hill,” though.  Many years later I finally saw Paul McCartney play live and at one point in the set his bandmates left the stage, and without introduction he plunked himself down at a psychedelic-hued piano and started playing this “most unworthy standard.”  Did I chance to look up, even for just a second?  Maybe.  Certainly I paid much closer attention to the lyrics, picturing the man sitting at the crest of a sea of tall, windblown grass, knees to chest, overlooking the village in the valley below and contemplating the great mystery, instead of staying where he ostensibly belongs.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I fancy myself a questioner of things, looking evermore for the solutions to the riddles that evolve into new riddles themselves.  Wondering why things work the way they do and if there is a pattern to it all lingering just out of reach.  However, the biggest questions, indeed, the biggest doubts, are reserved for myself.  I doubt my ability, my purpose and my voice, endlessly, and find solace to these doubts in fleeting, empty validations.  I fear that I am missing out on life by commenting on it rather than participating in it; that while some might consider the unexamined life not worth living, there must be some life there to examine first.  I wonder if that makes me the fool, and if the whole enterprise would be served better by me shutting up, packing it in and going down the pub for a few pints with the lads.  Few are the days when these particular thoughts don’t flit across my consciousness.  Fewer still are the days when I confidently think the reverse.

It seems eerily prescient that even though my father was long gone before all of this took shape – whatever this turns out to be – whenever he dusted off “The Fool on the Hill” he could have very well been describing his son, the man his son would one day become.  Though he never thought of me as foolish; like most fathers the slightest of my accomplishments merited praise to anyone who’d listen.  Perhaps, though, he noted the eyes in my head seeing the world spinning round.  Certainly the moment he died was the instant I became obsessed with making sense of why the world operated as it did, why fairness remained elusive and why history was built on reactions to random occurrences.  Or finding meaning in a boy losing his father when there was so much yet to learn and so many Beatles songs left to sing together.

With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.

I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s.  Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship.  (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.)  U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80′s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall.  Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me.  They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy.  What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.

What do U2′s songs mean to me?  Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.

1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire.  (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well:  Pop – Poppa – Father – God.)  The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90′s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance.  My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill.  For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this.  The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great.  Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas.  But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue.  That’s when I found Achtung Baby.

I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile.  Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays.  In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss,  confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break.  Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes.  Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.

So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them.  “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson?  Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry?  Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback?  Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth.  Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up.  But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.

U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners.  They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal:  solving What It’s All About.  However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.)  When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better.  U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring.  Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA.  Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one.  Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said.  What is even better than the real thing?  Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.

Parables on publishing, politics, pop culture, philosophical pondering and pushing people's limits.

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