With a Song in My Heart: T is for…

“Thriller” – Michael Jackson, 1982.

With the cloud that surrounded him toward the end of his life, it’s easy to forget how much of a watershed event the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was in the early 80′s.  At the time and even now, the critical consensus was that with Quincy Jones as his producer, Jackson had created a masterpiece.  The album landed like a meteor in an ocean and rippled through the popular culture of what was becoming the Reagan Decade, defining its sound and crowning Michael Jackson its King.  You could not flip through the stations on your radio without hearing “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” or the title track at number one in somebody’s weekly countdown.  His inventive music videos helped define that medium and set a standard that every other musical act would flail about attempting to imitate, still (for your consideration, the collected works of Perry, Katy).  Kids aped his fashion style on meager budgets and department store managers were driven batty by requests to purchase only single white rhinestone gloves.  The measure of cool was how much better than your friends you could moonwalk.  As difficult as it is to imagine now, there was a point in history where everybody wanted to be Michael Jackson.

Including me.

When we bought Thriller on cassette, I listened to it obsessively, song after song, puzzling out murky lyrics and trying to understand exactly what “mama-say-mama-sah-mama-coo-sah” meant.  I requested that my parents purchase one of the numerous Jackson biographies for me and pored through it until the pages curled and yellowed, memorizing every last detail about his childhood in Gary, Indiana, the initial success of the Jackson Five with Motown Records, the mounting pressure from his father and the eventual split off to go solo.  Michael Jackson made news with his every action, and I was right there lapping it up and regurgitating it on command (or more likely, without any prompting).  So far, not really atypical for any young fan of any musician, right?  Hmm.  Well, there’s more.

For a few months in early 1983 I had a peculiar Saturday morning ritual, where I would get up before seven, while the rest of the family remained asleep, don a maroon windbreaker that was the closest thing I could find to Michael’s “Thriller” video jacket, slip a battered old glove onto my hand, press play and start to dance.  I advised in yesterday’s post about the quality of my dancing to this day and it certainly wasn’t much better thirty years ago.  Yet I didn’t care.  You couldn’t moonwalk worth a damn on our shag carpet, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from trying.  I’d begin with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on side one, skip through the ballads and finish with “Thriller,” and by that point my parents had had enough and would come out to get me to turn the stereo off.  I’d humbly slink back to my bedroom, but the following Saturday the ritual would begin again.  It was the old adage about dancing like no one was watching.  The music pulled it out of me.  And many an air guitar was shredded to Eddie Van Halen’s solo in “Beat It.”

This devotion continued until a pivotal moment months later that brought it to an abrupt stop.  I was talking to a friend at school about Michael and the response came back:  “You still like Michael Jackson?  Nobody likes him anymore.”  Apparently, we had collectively moved on to Duran Duran and I hadn’t noticed.  But given the choice between continuing the Saturday morning white boy’s break dancing and risking losing the precarious friendships I did have, or stowing the windbreaker and the garden glove and going out and buying a copy of Seven and the Ragged Tiger, I chose the latter.  I didn’t have the confidence – nor, indeed, do many insecure children at that age – to swim against the tide and say no, I still love Michael Jackson.  Rather, like a feather blown about with the changing breeze, I let the prevailing attitude of the majority dictate my preferences.  I mean, Duran Duran were okay, but you wouldn’t get up early on a weekend to dance to “The Reflex.”  Not only that, I let myself be embarrassed about what I used to do.  As much as Thriller was a watershed for popular music, my choice to abandon it in the shoebox full of cassettes that was my father’s evolving music collection in favor of whatever else was popular was a change for me as well.  In a way, it signified a little death.  Never again would I be that uninhibited in how I chose to express myself.  Layers of reserve and caution would instead cement themselves into place over the playful young soul.  Suddenly there were always invisible eyes watching, scrutinizing, judging each move, each nuance, and nothing was more important than living up to their expectations.  I had to dial it back and tone it down.  Nowadays, there are moments here and there, but for the most part I’m content to sit quietly and let others do the dancing.  If the kid who tried to moonwalk is still in there somewhere, I haven’t heard from him in a very long time.

Someone once said that growing up is latching chains on a spirit until it stops flying and learns to walk.  (Maybe that someone was me.)  We are told by every thought leader that we should value our individuality and not let ourselves be dictated to by the will of the masses, but sometimes the desire for connection trumps the impetus to fight conformity.  That was the choice I made those many years ago, and would my life have turned out better had I not?  No way to know.  What I remember most, though, is the freedom.  The exhilaration of bouncing around that living room floor with sheer abandon, not caring an iota about what anyone else thought.  It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, thrilling.

With a Song in My Heart: S is for…

“Somebody Like You” – Keith Urban, 2002.

If you’ve been with me since April 1st (or longer) you’ve probably gotten the sense that I take music just a leeetle bit seriously.  Maybe that’s not the right word; it implies a certain lack of humor about things, and some of the songs I’ve selected for this blogging odyssey reflect a lighter sensibility.  What surprises me is meeting people who are far more cavalier about it – not, I should add, that there’s anything wrong with that – to the point where music, to them, is a bit meaningless.  This is crystallized for me in the songs that couples select for their first dance at their wedding.  Granted, you can’t speak to why a particular song means one thing to one person and something else to another, but often, you’re left scratching your head and wondering, did you even listen to the lyrics?

Three of the most popular choices are “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston and Celine Dion’s infamous Titanic anthem “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you pay attention to the lyrics, the first is about a woman treating a man like garbage, the second is a farewell to a relationship that has ended, and the third is about a lover who’s died.  Hardly the greatest sentiments with which to start a new life together.

When my then-fiancee and I were planning our ceremony and reception, we wanted to avoid the typical hug-and-shuffle-to-a-cheesy-ballad that besides being tired didn’t express who we were.  The initial selection was Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams’ duet “I Finally Found Someone” from The Mirror Has Two Faces.  We were taking ballroom classes at the time and thought a choreographed routine might be a fun twist.  Our dance studio was amenable (for a modest fee, naturally) and we began a series of hours learning the sways and steps of a rumba.  A few weeks in, though, despite the best efforts of our patient teacher, the sense was that it wasn’t working; too slow, not enough energy.  I’d never paid much notice of country music, but my better half put forth this Keith Urban number as a suggested alternative.  Hardly rumba material – this meant cha cha.

It might be worth pointing out at this juncture that my dancing has always been average at best, veering between extremes of “hopeless white guy” and “spastic goofball.”

Not wanting to disappoint, I accepted the challenge, and we moved immediately from gentle sashays to bold struts and turns and twists.  One of my less endearing traits is my lack of patience with myself when I can’t nail something, and the complicated series of steps and movements we’d assigned ourselves were a recipe for frayed nerves and easily blown fuses.  Outside the weekly classes we’d find any chance we could to move the living room furniture out of the way and run through the routine, and my attitude during more than one of these chances was substantially less than game; to my regret, it was often downright curmudgeonly.  Some sessions ended in curses and angry exits from the room, followed by apologies and pleas to try one more time.  At one point I may have mused that I was more concerned about this dance than any other aspect of the wedding, which did not go over very well to say the very least.  The days ticked down, the practices continued.  Finally we got it to a state where we were as confident as we were going to be.  All that remained was performing it for someone other than our cat – just sixty-four family and friends.  No pressure.

Married now, wine and dinner and dessert in our bellies, an emotional set of speeches given, and now the DJ is set to go and it’s time.  Keith Urban’s guitar starts up, my new wife and I bow to each other, and we are off.  As soon as we move into hold and start shaking our hips, our guests go crazy.  They are completely surprised, mainly by the fact that I haven’t tripped over myself, and every new step brings cheers and applause.  Sure, I mess up a couple of times, but by the time I spin my bride into my embrace, dip her and plant a kiss on her like the most seasoned swinger, the joy of the moment has long surpassed any remaining performance anxiety.  I get more than a few astonished congratulations afterwards, but more than any external accolade I’m proudest that I’ve done well for my lady.

One of the biggest adjustments you make in moving from bachelorhood to marriage is recognizing that you’re not living only for yourself anymore.  The transition to selfless living is not an easy one to make and the habit of clinging to vestiges of the single life can linger for years afterwards.  Wanting to love somebody can sometimes too be seen as a selfish need, looking outward to fill a void, without necessarily thinking whether or not that person particularly wants to fill your void at all.  What helps us move beyond the fear of losing oneself is the euphoria that can result from putting another’s needs before our own – the filling of a void we didn’t even know we had.  Though we are not always (or even often) successful in living this way, we need to stop and remember the moments when we did and work tirelessly to recreate them.  Keith Urban sings that “sometimes it’s hard for me to understand that you’re teaching me to be a better man.”  Truthfully, we don’t often get it.  But each time we do something for our partner without thought of what it means to us, we’re getting better.  Sharpening our steps.  Perfecting our soul.  And that is what wanting to love somebody can mean – wanting to make ourselves better by doing better by another.

With a Song in My Heart: R is for…

“The Rainbow Connection” – Kermit the Frog (The Muppet Movie), 1979.

Given that home video has become a multi-billion-dollar business over the last 35 years, generating far more revenue for Hollywood studios than its precious theatrical releases, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when any kind of home viewing of films was considered piracy, and that the infamous Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America once went before Congress and described the VCR as “to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”  In the 80′s, the VCR was a keystone of growing up.  It was a ticket to other worlds, in that now you had a permanent passport to those favorite adventures that otherwise you’d experience once in the theater and then have to wait about five years to see it again, chopped up with commercials on network TV, if you were lucky.  Even a Betamax machine (yes, my parents guessed wrong, and the phrase “sorry, we only have that on VHS” was heard often at our downtown video store) let you record, play, replay and scrutinize to your heart’s content.  There are a few formative movies that I recall watching rather obsessively when we were becoming the first generation to be able to do that:  Bond, Mary Poppins, Superman, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Popeye, and of course, The Muppet Movie.

The story of how Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of the gang came together to put on The Muppet Show week after week begins with Kermit alone in his home swamp, strumming a banjo, singing about dreams.  He’s content to remain there until a lost talent agent played by Dom DeLuise spurs him to pursue those dreams to Hollywood, meeting up with familiar faces in typical fourth wall-breaking, cameo-packed hijinks while avoiding the machinations of the evil Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) who wants Kermit as spokesfrog for his national chain of frog’s legs restaurants.  The half-dozen odd songs written by Paul Williams never quite manage to live up to the promise set by the opening number, but in fairness, how could they.  “The Rainbow Connection” is lovely, hopeful, meditative and even a little sad.  Hearing it always puts me back in the living room of the old house in front of that old wood-panel-encased picture tube, clinging to the remote that attached to the VCR by a long cord and had only three controls:  a pause button and a toggle between reverse and fast forward.  Primitive, perhaps, but enough to listen to Kermit’s opening number ad absurdum.

One of my more popular posts of the last couple of months was entitled “Don’t explain away the magic.”  Somewhat uniquely among forms of art, a deepening love of movies usually fosters a deeper investigation into how they are made, diminishing the magic while ironically strengthening your appreciation for them.  (I say uniquely as loving books, for example, doesn’t necessarily lead to a fascination with grammar and sentence structure.)  There are few special effects, optical or computerized, whose basic principles I don’t understand.  The shot of Kermit riding a bicycle after he sets out on his journey, however, continues to astonish me.  Partly because the Muppets were always so endearing, we wanted them to be real.  Fundamentally we knew it was Jim Henson or Frank Oz beneath the frame flapping the lips of a felt construction, but when Kermit was giving his dinner order to waiter Steve Martin or shrinking from mad scientist Mel Brooks, we leaped over the valley of doubt and disbelief.  As a person who revels in telling stories, whether in the form of novels, shorts, 140-character bursts or even short-form nonfiction like this, the ability to make your audience want to take that leap with you is the greatest, most elusive goal.  Most people can’t do it.  In hands lesser than those of Henson et al, the Muppets never would have worked; they would have been simply the latest variation on Punch & Judy, glaring fakes with obvious strings.  Yet they establish such credibility that even if you’ve never seen a Muppet show before, the first moments of this movie where Kermit picks up his banjo and starts to sing remain spellbinding.  You focus then on the meaning of the song and forget that it’s being performed through patches of fabric and glue.  And its idea of finding the ability to walk from idle dreams to unshakable certitude over an elusive rainbow road, makes absolute sense.

I’ve performed “The Rainbow Connection” at a handful of karaoke bars over the years, and my passable Kermit impression is usually good for a handful of laughs from anyone who can be bothered to look up from their drinks.  When I’m singing it, certainly I’m mindful of doing the Kermit voice properly, but I’m always putting just as much emphasis into what the song means.  In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and friends set out to follow their dreams, and discover that achieving them never looks like how you expected.  Many of us will be frightened out of the pursuit exactly for this reason; we can’t bear the idea that the truth won’t resemble our meticulously constructed fantasy.  Maybe you won’t submit your novel to anyone because you’re afraid it won’t be a million-dollar bestseller and a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson.  Maybe you won’t even hit “publish” on your blog post because you worry it won’t be a viral sensation that gets more hits than “Gangnam Style.”  Is that really the best alternative, though?  Burning away the years pining for a future you don’t have the guts to go after?  A swamp filled with regret is a lonely place to spend your one go-around on this planet.  Because it’s gonna be a reaaaaaaaaaally long wait for Dom DeLuise to show up.

With a Song in My Heart: Q is for…

“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” – Doris Day, 1956.

It was one of those conversations for which I don’t remember the context, originating most likely in a typical child’s naive question about the way of the world.  The location was my grandfather’s cottage on Lake Muskoka, the hard sun of late afternoon stippling the crests of the waves rolling past the dock.  I was wet and cold and sitting on a bench set back from the shoreline, a towel draped over my shoulders.  My grandmother sat next to me, and as a response to whatever it was I had asked, she offered the words of this song, welcoming the unknown future and suggesting that I should do the same.  Much like her son – my father – Nana could be counted upon to fall into song given the slightest opportunity, and her advice was usually musical in its delivery.  Got a problem?  There’s a Gershwin number for that.

Everyone has memories of the scary grandmother’s house, the creaky place an hour’s drive away on a Sunday you would have preferred spending with your toys and television, whose front door was a horrifying portal into the rock-hard furniture and industrial strength ribbon candy of the 1940′s.  Nana’s home, a more modern (for the time, anyway, with its decor more comfortably lodged in the 70′s and 80′s) apartment, was Carnegie Hall, a venue for the most revered performers of the golden age of American music, whether through the radio or the record player.  Though her son’s tastes were rooted in rock & roll, Nana remained loyal to the music she’d grown up with, to timeless singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra.  And there wasn’t a number of theirs whose words she didn’t know and couldn’t sing along with, matching them note  for note, phrase for phrase.  I recall my mother once complaining that she could never hear any music while Nana was in the room because Nana would always sing to it.  While I might have groaned a few times and wondered why we couldn’t put on Duran Duran or any, you know, popular songs, whether I wanted it to or not Cole Porter was getting under my subconscious, Rodgers & Hart were bewitching and bothering my thought patterns and Harold Arlen had my soul on a string.

Thanks to Nana my family had somewhere to stay when we visited Disney World for the first time, the yellow-hued converted mobile home on Mallard Drive I mentioned a few posts ago.  Her relationship with the man who would become my step-grandfather let us play in the waters of Ontario’s famous cottage country for a few weeks every summer.  And wherever she was, this music would be playing.  As grandparents go, Nana was quite “hip,” remaining current with events, technology and popular culture, but always scoring her life with the songs of a bygone era, as if keeping a foot anchored in traditions she knew were important to pass on, carrying the flame of Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn into an era that had replaced nuance with brashness, complexity with synthesizers.  Her old Hammond organ found its way to our house, and she was delighted when I figured out a way to depress the right tabs and program the correct beat in order to offer a passable rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” which she’d sing along to no matter how badly I messed up the rhythm.  As I grew older, the tabs on the Hammond broke one by one and I found myself drawn to the drums instead, she still loved coming to hear me play, bundling up for frigid Santa Claus parades and enduring countless dreary high school band concerts.  I think more than any other relative she appreciated my burgeoning musicality; so she should, given that she had a lot to do with helping to develop it, perhaps hoping somewhere in the back of her mind that I might go professional one day (alas).  She certainly would have loved knowing that Tony Bennett liked and shared my review of his show late last year, given that the first time I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was at the cottage on a warm summer night, with her providing live backing vocals.

It was telling that after she passed away suddenly in 1993 I stopped hearing that music for a long time.  A couple of decades in there I have no memory of any of its kind.  The door to that era was closed, and with it, a piece of me felt missing.  I’d become addicted to those songs without even realizing it, craving the comfort that would return to mind and heart upon hearing the first couple of bars.  When I first began dating the woman who would become my wife, and discovered that her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, the door opened again.  I realized only then how much I’d missed it, how much that “Nana music” had helped me understand the lasting value in the craft of a perfect couplet, a crisply executed bar of swing, and the passion that could be expressed with a singular voice and a stellar horn section.  The title of this series has been “With a Song in My Heart,” and never was that sentiment truer of anyone than my grandmother, whose heart held a music collection to rival the Library of Congress.  My wife and I have often joked that we wish life would more often erupt into spontaneous musical numbers; though she never said as much I suspect Nana held the same hope.  Even in her sixties, she’d be the first one to grab a microphone and dance.  Though she’s been gone now for over twenty years, one supposes it’s never too late to try to realize that dream.  After all, whatever will be, will be.

With a Song in My Heart: P is for…

“Part-Time Lover” – Stevie Wonder, 1985.

Single mothers have been one of the many banes of existence for the right wing since long before Dan Quayle’s infamous jibe at Murphy Brown.  For what reason, exactly, I’ve never entirely been able to fathom.  Scratch that, I know why – because of this invented image of an overweight, chain-smoking sponge, the utter antithesis of the “hard-workin’” folks who are the backbone of the economy (that and obscenely rich people, of course).  Said image, as with most things such conservatives dream up, is entirely at odds with the truth of single motherhood.  I can attest to this, having been raised by a single mother, one who had no choice in the matter and refused to let anyone feel sorry for her or ever expect life to hand her a break.  I suspect she was by no means unique.

My mother had been an elementary school teacher, but set her career aside apart from the occasional supply gig once her children were born.  My father’s unexpected death in 1987 left her with an 11 and 8-year-old and no means of support.  There was never any choice for Mom – she immediately went back to work, securing a full-time position and trying to manage the demands of a home, a job and a family with a tremendous and yet reserved strength of will.  I talked before in the “D” entry about how my mom was one to slide into the background and avoid the spotlight, doing the work without seeking the accolades.  Honestly, after a year as a parent of only one kid, and with a partner to share the load, I cannot fathom how she managed it.  By the end of a week, between the needs of a child still adjusting to life with us, our work commitments and after school duties, a house requiring constant upkeep and two kittens who seem determined to deny us more than two consecutive hours of sleep, my wife and I are completely spent.  Maybe they built people tougher back then.

By the time I was in high school, the three of us had settled into a comfortable routine.  I’d be up first to use the main floor shower, while my mother and sister would go about their respective ablutions and we’d convene in the kitchen for cereal, juice and toast.  There was a ghetto blaster occupying the floor in our sunroom adjacent to the kitchen, which Mom would always flip on.  It was tuned to the local soft rock hits station, and for whatever reason – limited song bank, unimaginative programming director – Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” would play during that 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. slot at least once, if not a couple of times a week.  I often rolled my eyes upon hearing it start up yet again as the sun cracked over the treeline in our backyard.  Somehow though I never asked Mom to change the station.  I must have known it was her favorite.

Indeed, my mother allowed herself precious few pleasures of her own.  She had almost no outside interests apart from her monthly bridge club.  Rather, her energies were directed singularly into ensuring that we had everything we needed, and that we didn’t miss out on what life could offer.  The mere thought of something for herself seemed alien.  According to her, that just wasn’t what you did when you had kids.  It was more important that we had bountiful Christmases and birthdays and that the fridge was always full.  That we got the chance to belong to marching bands and dance studios, that we were able to take school trips to New Orleans and family vacations to Disney World.  It was more important that we taste culture with plays, musicals, operas and symphonies.  It was more important that we experienced the world beyond the front door of our family home; somewhere a teenager especially would have been content to laze about in front of a television screen and a computer monitor (VGA of course).

I was fortunate enough to have these things and these experiences because my mother worked hard for them, with the selflessness and courage that is the hallmark of the greatest of single mothers.  When I have those moments where everything overwhelms and seems much too hard, I have to force myself to remember my mother’s attitude:  never question, never complain, just do, without thought of return.  In the tempest of hormones that is teenagehood I know I didn’t reciprocate her gifts very often.  In fact, her refusal to take any credit probably led me to feeling a little more entitled than I should have.  Some of the nice-to-haves became expectations.  It was only when I was much older and recognized the price of a comfortable life – the costs to both pocketbook and soul – did I begin to appreciate what she put herself through and how fortunate my sister and I were to have her guiding and protecting us as we coped with the loss of our father and the struggle to figure out who we were.  Motherhood, especially single motherhood, is most certainly not a job for part-timers, and anyone who refuses to recognize that is, without mincing words or anything, an idiot.

With a Song in My Heart: O is for…

“OK Blue Jays” – Keith Hampshire and the Bat Boys, 1983.

Full disclosure:  I had originally chosen another song for this slot.  When I decided to embark on this odyssey (another O-reference!) back in March, I assembled the music first, without giving too much thought to what I would write about.  Most were obvious picks, as were the substance of the posts that would accompany them, but as I’ve gone along here plumbing the recesses of my memories, my inner editor-in-chief has wanted to ensure that the content remains varied and interesting.  So, rather than compose another brooding entry about a melancholy song, I’ve made a last-minute swap for something out of left field – literally.  “OK Blue Jays” has been the theme song of Toronto’s major league baseball team for over thirty years, with the same dance performed every seventh-inning stretch at every home game.  In the mid-1980′s and early 1990′s, tens of thousands of fans united in this upbeat, calisthenic celebration of their hometown squad.  Today, barely a few hundred can be bothered to summon the meager enthusiasm needed to detach their rears from their chairs for a purpose other than refreshing their beer.

There is a deep irony associated with the fandom for Toronto sports franchises, in that Blue Jays fans bailed after the back-to-back World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 and have never returned, while the Maple Leafs continue to draw capacity crowds despite regularly sucking and failing to make the playoffs year after year.  I can’t claim the high road here, either; the strike of 1994 tore the heart out of Toronto’s baseball fans, and it has never fully healed.  I remember feeling betrayed, disgusted, fed up, and vowing never to come back, despite Blue Jays games having been a formative part of my youth.  Carefully preserved, still, in a box in my basement is a copy of the official souvenir program from the very first Blue Jays game at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977, where snow baptized the brand new artificial turf and froze the thousands who’d come to share in a piece of sports history.  In another box is the small, faded jersey that was my uniform for Jays games with my dad – with STIEB 37 stitched on the back.   From 1983 to 1986, my father would go halfsies with a friend on a season ticket package each year – section 11, row 9, seats 1 and 2, just up from the first base line.  Fortunately, since his friend knew nothing about baseball and used the tickets largely for client giveaways, Dad managed to acquire the best games.

The “Ex,” or the “Mistake by the Lake,” was a slapdash stadium that looked like it had been assembled by accident, yet it harbored a spirit that its fancy replacement SkyDome (I refuse to call it the “Rogers Centre”) has never replicated.  The scoreboard looked little better than that of a high school football team with its yellow LED’s, a few of which were usually burnt out, and the sound system scratched and popped with the voice of local radio personality Murray Eldon announcing “yourrrr To-RONTO Blue Jays!!!!”  The $15 field level seats at the Ex weren’t any more comfortable than the $1 general admission over the left field wall, the hot dogs were soggy after being steamed all day and you had a one in three chance of getting drenched and the game being rained out, but nobody cared.  The twenty to thirty-odd games Dad and I would attend each year were like family reunions, as we’d become friendly with the other season ticket holders in the surrounding seats, the concession vendors hollering out their wares (“rrrrroast beef on a kaiser!” drew a few laughs one night), even with the mustachioed security guard manning the gate separating the stands from the field.  We perfected “The Wave” in those stands; you could hear it rumbling towards you as column after column stood up and flung their arms into the air, and metal seats snapped back.  When a foul ball flew our way, gloves were brandished and bodies leaped across aisles and occasionally into guys carrying trays full of beer in order to snag a fragment of the wonder – and we would all applaud a fantastic amateur catch, even the guy who’d gotten soaked with his own four-pack of Labatt’s Blue.

The 80′s and 90′s were probably the last era for Blue Jays who would endear themselves to the fans the way classic ball players like DiMaggio and Mantle would.  At the Ex we watched Willie Upshaw, Damaso Garcia, Ernie Whitt, Buck Martinez, Rance Mulliniks, Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Garth Iorg, Jesse Barfield, Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Luis Leal and Jimmy Key bat, throw and field their way into highlight reels and hearts.  We watched other greats like Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken and George Brett take them on, managed by legends like Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson and Billy Martin.  Later on, new favorites like Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter would carve themselves a place in Blue Jay annals.  By that time, though, the Ex was abandoned for its shinier, retractable-roof replacement, and a few short years later it would be demolished to make way for, as Joni Mitchell would appreciate, a parking lot.

They still play “OK Blue Jays” in the club’s new home, but it doesn’t sound right there.  To me that song belongs to another place, another decade.  A more innocent time, perhaps; at least, a time when I was far more innocent.  When I hoarded the glossy program from each game and spent hours copying statistics into my own comprehensive Blue Jays binder like some medieval monk attempting to chronicle the history of the world.  When that jersey still fit, and when I could be wowed by the prospect of walking onto the field to meet my heroes.  When I couldn’t wait for the seventh inning and a chance to sing that tune at the top of my lungs while flailing my arms about in a proud display of support for – in my humble opinion, of course – the greatest team to ever play the game.  Where did it go wrong?  Years of rising ticket prices and deflating player talent have tempered that devotion, and our interest is limited to maybe pausing on a televised game for a few minutes while channel surfing on a Friday night.

Yet that devotion will always be there, even if it’s been papered over by a few decades of cynicism and disinterest.  Support for a sports team is like support for a political position – ingrained, fundamentally unshakable.  It is as inflexible as one’s morals and as lasting as the greatest love.  I may not be able to afford season tickets anymore, and I may not have the time to go to 30 games a year, but the song can still remind me of the reason I first became a fan:  the sheer joy of the experience as it unfolded, the anticipation of what would happen next, and the unlimited possibilities beyond that simple phrase, “Let’s play ball.”

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.

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


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