Category Archives: Music

A song in your heart and a skip in your step. Better than the reverse.

On a Clear Day, you can hear forever

clearday

Jazz has never been the taste of the timid.  It’s a gauntlet thrown down for the bold.  More than any other form of music, jazz demands a degree of commitment, an implicit contract between song and listener.  Jazz extends you an invitation to wander through its complex depths, brain fully engaged, to discover the notes that will move your heart.  The most learned fans of jazz will always emphasize this idea of the journey.  They’ll name-check greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, but they’ll tell you with a gleam in their eye that the greatest jazz they ever heard was played by an unknown 75-year-old trumpeter they stumbled upon in a dive bar in Kansas City in 1978.  So too is jazz a journey for the performers who recognize this drive at the soul of it to go, to seek the best of it out in remote corners.  Emilie-Claire Barlow, an award-winning Canadian singer with ten albums under her belt, knew her newest release Clear Day needed to embrace the quest beckoning at the core of jazz.  On the opening instrumental track “Amundsen,” she whispers enticingly in French, “all things are possible” – and sets about taking us on a journey that proves it.

Barlow has always been an artist with the ability to reach into songs across different genres and with affectionate fingers, draw out the jazz you never knew was hiding inside.  Clear Day offers a broad canvas on which she can play – a map of the world, if you will – from classic Tin Pan Alley numbers to Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Beatles and Queen and even a French interpretation of a traditional song from Mexican folklore for good measure.  Far from settling for a release of glorified karaoke cuts, however, Barlow deconstructs each song down to its basic elements and rebuilds it into a brand new confection, offering a teasing taste of the familiar to settle you into your seat before the inventive arrangements blast you out of it.  The title track opens with a movie-esque swell of strings and brass, like an eager, applauding audience waiting for the curtain to rise and the star to assume her place.  What follows are songs you know but yet don’t:  the early eighties groove of “Under Pressure” is here, but without the bass riff later made infamous by Vanilla Ice.  So is “Fix You,” retaining the comforting core of the lyrics but shedding the histrionic treacle that unbalanced Coldplay’s original.

Tossing the script like that might be a concern if entrusted to a vocalist of lesser chops, but Barlow, backed this time by both her regular supporting combo players and the 52-member Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, is more than up to the challenge.  She takes a spotlit center stage with her often dizzying, always compelling aural acrobatics.  Her voice can be by turns searing, sweet, aching, dreamy or white-hot sexy, while never succumbing to the nasty American Idol habit of cranking things past 11 on every single track to transfix wandering attentions.  Her vocal runs are remarkable not only for their range but their restraint.  A great performer never shows you her top, because then the audience will realize she has nowhere else to go.  Emilie-Claire Barlow knows this, and as a result her work is one of constant surprise.  Accordingly, Clear Day is not an album to throw on in the background to score empty dinner conversation, lest you miss something special.  It makes you comb through its reaches for the treasure awaiting the diligent.  And there’s a lot of treasure lurking here.

Barlow has the ability, on every song, to welcome you along as a passenger on the intimate journey that is jazz, beginning with her wistful echoes of the Arctic circle in “Amundsen,” as if you were an old friend from the trenches.  When she takes on the persona of the lonely, longing songstress whispering her pain to the deaf ears of the closing-time crowd in “Unrequited,” you can immediately imagine yourself nursing a scotch in the front row.  When she kicks down the cobblestones on a sunny Sunday morning in “Feelin’ Groovy,” you’re smiling and tipping your cap as you watch this vivacious bubble of energy saunter by.  When she transforms into the widow in flowing black silks by the river weeping for her lost children in the haunting, rending “La Llorona,” you’re reaching out to console her.  But never one to bid her audience goodbye on a downhearted note, Barlow instead dances you out with a sprightly spring in her step in the lively, conga-driven “Mineiro de Coração.”  You feel, as the final notes spiral into the dark and you part ways, that you’ve walked the world together to a jazz-flavored beat, and you’re more than eager to rewind to track 1 and make the voyage again.  This is Barlow’s most accomplished and most mature album, and while one would never suggest she wasn’t terrific before, Clear Day is a confident climb up to the next level.  She writes on the album’s liner notes that Clear Day was inspired by her personal journey over the last four years, and we are reminded that the best art is that which dares to dig deep and to embrace any scars accumulated on the way.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Emilie-Claire Barlow perform live a couple of times, and I’m often left perplexed as to why someone with such formidable talent isn’t selling out stadiums instead of the Auto-Tuned pop princess du jour.  Perhaps it goes back to the notion that jazz is something that you have to search out, rather than have it served to you passively with ad nauseum airplay on mainstream radio.  Clear Day is that glittering jewel of an example where you don’t have to journey too far to find it.  Rather, the journey is in the experience of the album itself, a vast menu of worldly delights that makes its asks of you but, for your trouble, supplies sumptuous rewards.  Pick it up, listen well, and share it with the next person who asks about the last time you heard some great jazz.

Clear Day is available online and in music stores now.

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With a Song in My Heart: Z is for…

“Zooropa” – U2, 1993.

Here we are on Day 26 with our final installment, and as expected it’s a tad bittersweet.  While I’ve relished the challenge of delving into my past as scored with specific pieces of music and testing my capacity for both memoir and music journalism, and could likely go on with several more, Z is as good a place as any to stop, before the formula grows stale and the stories tedious.  The question arises, naturally, of what to do next, after these ~25,000 words in 30 days have been relegated to the archive of projects past.  I might borrow a line from the subject of today’s entry and go away and dream it all up again.  We’ll see.  That’s a decision for May 1st.  Before I go on, though, I want to send a special shout out to Joanne Blaikie of Writeaway, who’s been a challenge partner and has provided a great deal of support and encouragement along the way.  The subject of Joanne’s A to Z challenge has been an encyclopedic journey through her fantasy trilogy Prophecy of Innocence and it’s been a delight to see the fruits of her wonderful imagination revealed one post at a time.

It is of writing, in fact, that the final post in my series speaks.  I’ve always written to a lot of U2, generally from The Unforgettable Fire onwards (their first three albums are a little too raw and distracting when you’re trying to sink into a moment).  The Edge’s trippy, dreamy guitar work in the Eno period has ever been a proper Pied Piper leading me into that headspace wellspring from whence the words come.  “Zooropa,” the title track from their 1993 album, is a headspace all its own.  About ten years ago, when I was hardcore first drafting what would become – after being extracted from the bloated behemoth of another work, reimagined, rethought, revised, abandoned for eight years while I sorted out my life, rescued from oblivion, chopped in three and re-revised again – my first novel (which, described that way, sounds like the procedure Vogons have to follow to rescue their grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal), I used “Zooropa” to wake myself up in the mornings I had set aside to work on it.  It is a great alarm song – rather than waking you with a start, the introduction crescendoes slowly from almost nothing, adding in a gentle piano arpeggio before the guitar asserts itself and Bono starts singing.  There’s a line in it too that is a terrific mantra for writers:  “I have no compass, and I have no map.  And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.”  Even those of us who work from intricate outlines have to admit that the excitement in the writing process is losing ourselves in the story and finding out where it goes, the unexpected corners that are the reward for the blood-and-sweat agony of advancing the narrative ever further.  And once you start, you don’t want to stop, even if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going.  Uncertainty, as Bono suggests in “Zooropa,” can be a guiding light.

Zooropa the album was recorded during a break between legs of U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992-93, a record-breaking, MTV-inspired extravaganza whose excesses came to characterize the band that U2 would become after leaving behind the occasionally insufferable earnestness of their 80’s work.  While traveling the world promoting Achtung Baby, U2 learned how to take the piss out of themselves and embrace the contradictions of rock stardom.  Energized by this new vibe, the band chose to funnel the outpouring of creativity into a new album rather than lounging about their mansions for four months waiting to go out on the road again.  The result was somewhat uneven, with achingly beautiful numbers like “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” sitting uneasily next to throwaways like “Babyface” and the miscasting of Johnny Cash on lead vocals for “The Wanderer,” without the unifying theme so obvious on the previous LP.  We’ve probably each had an occasion where something sparks our idea generator and we rush to empty our braingasms through the nearest writing implement, only to look back on the result the next day and question the apparent temporary loss of sanity.  The blog challenge doesn’t give you that opportunity for reflection, you have to publish and move on to the next one, keep feeding the beast.  When I saw U2 perform live on their last tour, I don’t think they did a single song from Zooropa.  What was good enough to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy for 1993 apparently doesn’t rate a mention almost twenty years later.  I may look back on this series from the perch of a few years’ distance and wish I could rewrite every single one from scratch.  It isn’t ego, it’s the nature of the business, and we are always our own harshest critics.  One wonders sometimes why we choose such a masochistic vocation.  But it’s because we were born this way.  We have to do this.  “Choice” never enters into it.

The last line in “Zooropa” is “dream out loud.”  Back then it was the perfect message with which to kick off a daily explosion of new words.  What is writing, anyway, but dreaming out loud?  Transforming wild thoughts and secret longings through the greatest medium available to facilitate the connection of one person to a community of our common humanity.  Ever since the first English teacher handed me a pencil and a sheet of lined paper and asked me to tell her in a proper paragraph about what I did over the weekend, I’ve been afflicted with the compulsion to assemble words into opinions, parables, images, plots and plain old goofery, and share them with others.  It’s been almost thirty-five years of this now and I can’t kick the habit.  Success, or lack thereof, isn’t part of the equation.  Even if no one was reading this I’d probably still be doing it.  I suspect many of my readers who are themselves writers feel the same.  Recognition is icing.  The true reward is a story well told.  And for those times when we find ourselves mired in the muck, the right music can help us find the way out, better than a compass and a map.

So here’s to dreaming out loud, with songs in our hearts, yesterday, today and all the tomorrows to come.  Thanks for reading.

With a Song in My Heart: Y is for…

“Your Song” – Elton John, 1970.

Kids these days (ugh) probably don’t know what a B-side is.  Well, young’uns, back in the dark ages of analogue music, songs were released on these archaic, dinner plate-shaped things called records, which, unlike their later brethren the CD, could be played on a mind-blowing TWO sides, helpfully labeled A and B for quick reference.  “B-side” was generally bandspeak for “throwaway”:  when a band put out a single they’d usually stick some filler or weird experimental crap on the B-side, fated to be swiftly forgotten by all but hipsters and pretentious music critics.  Elton John’s “Your Song” is that rare example of when the B-side outshone the ostensible hit.  Released in 1970 as the backing track for the single “Take Me to the Pilot,” the DJs of the day decided they liked “Your Song” better and put it in heavy rotation instead.  It’s arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever created by the songwriting duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and was praised by none other than John Lennon as the best thing done in rock following the breakup of the Beatles (never one for modesty was he).  Interestingly enough, Elton John has suggested in interviews that he took only about half an hour to write it.  Not bad for something banged out over a tea break, n’est-ce-pas?

What I’ve always liked about “Your Song,” and what I suppose appeals most to my nature, is the modest, insecure manner in which the lyrics shuffle themselves forward.  This isn’t the kind of bravado and boasting about wealth and sheer awesomeness we’d see in say, gangsta rap.  Instead, the singer is apologetic at his lack of money, offering the usual empty promises about what he would buy for his love if only he could afford it.  Then, he can’t even decide what hypothetical successful person he wants to be – “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no, or a man who makes potions in a traveling show.  I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”  In life, love demands confidence, but the shy still feel it and burn with it and need it as much as anyone else.  As he struggles on, the singer complains about getting the verses wrong and not even being able to remember the color of his love’s eyes, asserting only that they are the sweetest he has ever seen.  The chorus, too, pleads for reassurance that the object of the affections doesn’t mind this grossly inadequate tribute, which in the end can but say simply “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

When you style yourself a writer, or indeed, any kind of artist, there is something of an unconscious expectation among others that you should be able to express yourself flawlessly in each moment.  That you should be a boundless reservoir of wisdom concerning the human heart, that you should be able to navigate relationships with the ease and skill of an emotional Magellan, and moreover, always know exactly what to write on a birthday card.  In fact, I have lost track of the number of serious conversations I’ve been in where I have sat dumbfounded and dumbstruck and totally without words, and come away thinking there was something wrong with me, unable to reconcile the contradiction of being adept in one medium of language and inept in another.  So too do I find that when I’m trying to reassure my loved ones or my dearest friends in a difficult moment my platitudes sound to me like bad soap opera lines that have been translated from Mandarin Chinese via Czech, Swahili and Esperanto.  There was a point in my twenties when it felt like everyone was coming to me for advice on some matter or another, though I wasn’t sure where I got the guru reputation.  The best I could do would be to recycle something I heard or read and hope that it fit the occasion.  Wisdom is a quality I’ve never perceived in myself; rather, I’m like the narrator in “Your Song,” stumbling about in the dark, only ever by happenstance finding words that fit.  My idle fantasy of giving a TED talk one day seems destined to remain just that.  Dammit.

My wife and I met at a karaoke bar, and we used to go to that same one every couple of weeks when we were first dating.  “Your Song” was heavy on my performance rotation, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (the first song she ever heard me sing) and a few of the others who’ve found their way into this series of posts.  (Also “Love Shack,” but that’s another story.)  “Your Song” was my favorite to sing to her, however, and it remains in the opinion of your humble narrator the greatest love song for the tongue-tied.  It also happens, in my case, to be true – my wife’s pale, enchanting blues are indeed the sweetest eyes I have ever seen.  Love songs like this one resonate most because they are surrogates that let us speak the emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, directly and without distraction, cutting right to the unburdened clarity of one person’s passion for another.  We often can’t say – or sing – it better.  Though I’ve never fancied being a sculptor or a snake oil huckster, this song fills that slot for me.  It’s a good reminder at those instances of awkward flailing that I remain one of the better B-sides, a person of deep feeling, though my inability to speak such things aloud can make me seem in person to be cold, verging on Vulcan, as if the heart beats only at the basic task of pumping blood.  That blood, however, runs hot.  And I hope you don’t mind if I put it down in words.

With a Song in My Heart: X is for…

“X&Y” – Coldplay, 2005.

Well, you didn’t exactly think it was going to be Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu,” did you?  Though there aren’t a lot of “X” songs to choose from, this one fits the bill nicely.  It lends its title to Coldplay’s 2005 album, which features better known singles like “Speed of Sound” and “Talk.”  It was also the album they were promoting in the first rock concert my then-girlfriend and I ever attended together.  (Double extra bonus:  Richard Ashcroft was opening for them.)  Tickets to said show were her first Valentine’s Day gift to me, after we’d only been dating for a couple of months.  It was a measure, perhaps, of how quickly and deeply we fell in love, not just that she would buy me the tickets but be willing to stand in an ear-splitting din for three hours watching a band – two bands, really – she was relatively indifferent about but knew that I loved.  (The following Valentine’s Day, the only way I saw to outdo this generous gift was to propose.  A card and chocolates wasn’t going to do it.)

There is not much to the song itself; it’s a bit of filler sandwiched between the two more popular tracks on the middle of the album.  The second verse, however, is a fairly accurate description of the first stage of our relationship.  “I dive in at the deep end, you become my best friend.  I want to love you but I don’t know if I can.  I know something is broken and I’m trying to fix it, trying to repair it any way I can.”  Our connection was immediate, offering no room for half-measures, no games, no I’d-better-wait-three-days-before-I-call-back-so-she-doesn’t-think-I’m-desperate stratagems.  Up front, we agreed that we knew we liked each other and that we preferred not to mess around with the so-called rules of courtship (as exemplified by Swingers and every single episode of Friends.)  It was a tremendous weight off one’s shoulders, I must confess, after a year spent in and out of temporary dalliances with other women that were dominated by such frivolities.  Obviously we still harbored those same fears of being hurt, of committing and losing our way.  My professional life, too, was in tatters and I questioned where I had the temerity to enter into a serious relationship when I didn’t know whether I’d have the rent next month.  Something was indeed broken.

It came to the point after several months that the choice for me was to either sever another, damaging relationship or lose the one that was teaching me to smile again and that there was a sublime world beyond the borders of my small, inwardly focused life.  In retrospect, it was the easiest decision I ever made.  Seldom does a day pass when I don’t feel grateful that when I was drowning, she was there to throw me a lifeline.  I used to be quite cynical about humanity and human beings, entrenched in the opinion that we are doomed to destroy ourselves through greed, selfishness and spite, the stuff of any one of a hundred dystopian YA novels.  Maybe a great majority of us are, but my wife reminds me through her actions and her attitude that there remain a lot of good people in the world, and our side has a better than average fighting chance.  We have the plans to the Death Star of banality, we’re aiming a proton torpedo of kindness at the exhaust port, and we don’t need no stinkin’ targeting computer.

There is a line of spiritual thought, I’m not sure which, postulating that human beings were originally androgynous beings that were split into separate genders by the gods and have spent eternity attempting to reconnect.  As a single person you can’t even articulate what’s missing, you just know that something is.  The equation is incomplete and every fiber of your being is dedicated to solving it, to seeing how the story ends.  This particular Y needed an X.  I’d like to believe that in sharing themselves with each other, X&Y became a whole greater than the sum of their parts.  (Though I’m sure I could list a hundred ways in which my wife has made me a better person before I could name one where I’ve helped her.)  I was asked on the morning of our wedding what her best qualities were, and my answer hasn’t changed in seven years:  the giving nature that inhabits her every thought and deed; of herself, of her time, of her love.  Even now, as she waits for me to finish this post so we can watch Game of Thrones together (a show she does not really care for), I’m reminded of that.  I’m reminded of the Coldplay concert, swaying together to “X&Y,” feeling like she fixed me, and continues to fix what’s broken each day we are together.  It is something to feel like you won’t ever be able to fully repay a debt of the soul, but I figure I can at least start by letting her get through her episode of Orange is the New Black first.

With a Song in My Heart: W is for…

“When You Wish Upon a Star” – Cliff Edwards (as Jiminy Cricket), 1940.

When I was putting the list of songs for this series together, this was one of the first, most obvious choices.  It isn’t my intention, however, to spend these thousand-odd words talking about my life with Disney:  that has been covered, I think, rather well, here, here, here, here and here.  Rather, I want to talk about one particular wish upon a star that as of yesterday, roundabouts 2:00 in the afternoon (in a nice bit of serendipity with the timing of this particular song post) came true.  Our adoption of our son was finalized.  Though in our hearts he’s been part of our family since the moment we met him, in the eyes of the law he is now forever, irrevocably, ours.  His life lies entirely within our hands; whatever may befall him going forward will be our responsibility and our fates will be forever intertwined.  Till death us do part.

I haven’t talked much about him here for a couple of reasons.  Primarily, it’s to preserve his privacy.  You see enough stories about cyberbullying to make us very grateful that he hasn’t asked to be on Facebook or Instagram or anything else.  My son has no digital footprint, and he doesn’t need one to grow up happy and healthy and with a rich experience of what young life has to offer him.  The second reason is a bit selfish, and it’s that my wife and I have talked about adapting our experience of becoming adoptive parents of an older child into a book, so best to save the lion’s share of the stories for that eventual publication.  Sitting in the courtroom yesterday, with this upcoming post looming, the words of this song flitted across my thoughts and it occurred to me that the path of wishes is often winding, with the realization of dreams seldom taking the shape of how they were initially conceived.  In less pretentious English, that’s my way of saying how I never imagined I’d become a parent in this particular way.  And yet, here I am.  Dad, for good.

You will sometimes read stories about celebrities who talk about their single-minded pursuit of their goals, with a clear plan established from childhood and each step executed with undeviating precision, so that when success comes it’s less a surprise and more an inevitable conclusion.  They know their future down to the minute.  This kind of ordered life is not my experience. Nor, I suspect, do the majority of the world’s population find their existence unfolding like clockwork.  When I was nine years old, I started writing a novel about a boy and his horse.  I distinctly remember the day I had decided to do it, and I had not written more than the first paragraph before I ran into my parents asking if we could get it published.  My father, wisely, suggested that I finish the book first and then we could see about it.  At that point I had everything planned out:  published at ten, a worldwide phenomenon at eleven, movie deal at twelve, retirement at thirteen.  It needs not be stated, I suspect, that none of the aforementioned came to pass.  (If I am fortunate enough to get a novel published at some point in the near future, it will certainly not be that one.  I’m still slogging through the query process at present, and should those stars align I’ll wager it won’t be in any way how I imagined it.)  In much the same way, every new year at school I imagined that this was the year I’d finally meet THE ONE.  As dry times drifted by, I kept faith that I would someday meet the woman I’d marry, little realizing it wouldn’t be until I was thirty.  But that dream came true.  This summer we celebrate seven years of marriage.

The song promises that “Fate is kind, she brings to those who love the sweet fulfillment of their secret longing.”  Even as I recited my marriage vows, I wasn’t certain I wanted to be a father.  I felt too young, too inexperienced, too utterly lacking the qualities of patience and wisdom that seemed to exude from every parent I knew.  Moreover, the idea of that responsibility was terrifying.  I’d just come through some tremendous personal turmoil and taking on someone else’s burden was an impossible notion.  So I went in to the pursuit of parenthood fairly half-heartedly.  After struggling for several years with the frustration and heartbreak of futile fertility treatments, we eventually resigned ourselves to the idea that it would be just the two of us.  At the time, I was okay with that, or at least, I put on a good show of being okay with it.  Then against expectation, we found ourselves moving to a house within spitting distance of an elementary school.  A man whom my wife has often consulted for spiritual advice suggested that this new home would be full of positive energy, and that a child would come into our lives in a most unexpected way.  When we signed up to mentor a young boy through Big Brothers and Big Sisters, we thought maybe this was what he was referring to.  And then one gray afternoon in late December, in a charged conversation we both arrived at the conclusion that something was still missing.  Mentoring once a week wasn’t enough.  We needed to be parents.

Two years and four months after that initial talk, with our families as witnesses we completed the final step.  Any lingering questions were wiped away by the tears welling up as Madam Justice read out the adoption order and congratulated us.  I’m still filled with doubt about the job I’m doing as a father, about whether I’m showing enough patience and whether or not I’m wrecking his self-esteem every time I lecture him about whatever he’s done that’s irked me today.  What I don’t doubt anymore is whether or not I wanted this life.  Fate, it seems, has indeed been kind, and fulfilled this particular secret longing.  It knew what was meant for me better than I did.  We have an amazing son, a bright, good-hearted boy whose future with us is far greater than the one that awaited him in foster care.  I look forward to the day I can stand up at his wedding and tell all the embarrassing stories that I’m cataloguing for that very purpose, and when I can bounce that first grandchild on my knee.  I have no idea what that will look like, but I know it will come.  The star has been chosen and the wish has been made.  And Jiminy Cricket told me so.

With a Song in My Heart: V is for…

“Valotte” – Julian Lennon, 1984.

Without exception, the first reaction anyone has when hearing Julian Lennon sing is “wow, he really sounds like his dad.”  Released a mere four years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, “Valotte” would not sound out of place on Lennon the elder’s final album Double Fantasy.  The entertainment press of the day, as skilled as their contemporary counterparts in crafting stories from smoke and nonsense, immediately started running rumors that the three surviving Beatles were planning to reunite and begin recording again with Julian standing in for his father.  Paul McCartney shrugged them off of course, pointedly asking why Julian would ever want that.  Every son stands in the shadow of his father, and Julian (and Sean) Lennon are within the umbra of one of the most famous and beloved musicians who ever lived.  Julian writes in the introduction to his mother Cynthia’s book John that strangers approach him constantly and tell him that they loved his dad.  To him, though, John Lennon wasn’t the larger-than-life rock god who gave the world the Beatles and Imagine, he was a flawed, often absent and cruel parent, and the relationship was complicated until the moment John died and remains so long afterwards.

As I expect Julian does from time to time, I envy those friends of mine who can still ring their dad up and kvetch about the Jays and the Argos and how the kid is getting along in school.  For all but eleven of my years I’ve tried to manage a relationship with someone who is not here.  The lack of resolution, of closure, can at times feel like a wound that begins to bleed again just when you think it’s finally scabbed over.  From the moment you enter the world, you have this aspirational model waiting to show you how it should be done.  (For some, you have a cautionary tale waiting instead.)  Legacies are a difficult birthright, a yardstick by which every single thing you do will be measured, evaluated, and just as often, judged.  When the legacy is invisible, the task is even more difficult.  You’ll never be able to ask him if he’s proud, or, conversely, on a bad day, you’ll never be able to shove it in his face and say, look what I did without your help.

In his youth my father was a high school football hero fighting off women with a stick.  I was a quiet geek whose tongue would knot itself in the presence of a breath of perfume.  In career he was a civil law barrister and solicitor with his own practice.  I am… well, incredibly not.  There was a moment, maybe a couple of years in high school, where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I figured out what courses I should be taking to ready myself for the inevitable university degree and law school, and yet, it isn’t as if in my spare time I was watching L.A. Law or Law & Order obsessively, or hanging out at the local courthouse watching proceedings, or tracking down my late father’s attorney friends and asking them if I could fetch coffee and read amicus briefs in their offices over the summer.  I was watching movies, writing Star Trek fan fiction, drawing James Bond comic books, playing drums in my hometown’s world-renowned marching band and trying and failing to work up the courage to step up to the plate with girls that I liked.  It was fairly obvious by my graduating year that law was not where my passion lay, despite the caveats of my grandmother (the other one) that a law degree was the golden ticket.  She’s not entirely wrong, and there are moments when I think I should have just gone ahead with it.  Hindsight and all that.  And since any success I would have would be compared to my father’s anyway, maybe it should have been an apples to apples comparison.

When the sons of John Lennon decided to go into music, they were walking into it fully understanding of the comparisons that would be made, and that the success of their father was an impossible benchmark.  At the risk of sounding a bit trite, they had to be doing it for love, and because they were driven by a desire to express their own creativity and personality, not to merely offer a pale imitation of what had gone before.  Even with your father present and guiding you, a son always has to forge his own path.  On occasion that path can venture through dark territory, and perhaps it will never lead to a place as prosperous as that achieved by your dad, but it will, at the end, be your own.  In the music video for the other single release from that 1984 album, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Julian performs with his band while a silhouetted figure, strongly implied to be John, dances in a brightly lit doorway attempting to distract him.  Eventually Julian stops looking and continues to go his own way instead.  Rightly or wrongly, it’s his choice, as it is for the rest of us.

Had I tried to be more like my father, it’s arguable I might have had a more financially rewarding career, more options now for experiencing more of the world and giving those closest to me more options with theirs as well.  Would that translate to a better life?  The people I know who are wealthy certainly don’t seem like pillars of joy.  Maybe we’d be happiest of all sitting on a pebble by a river playing guitar.  When we truly commit to our life and become willing to accept the consequences of our choices whatever they may be, the shadow of the father fades away.  I think about this in the context of being a father myself and knowing that at the very least, my son will have a better life than his birth dad’s, and every opportunity to exceed my achievements as well.  But none of that matters so long as at the end of it all, he can look back and say that he was happy.  I guess that’s the irony that becomes apparent only when you get to the other side of the divide between having a parent and being one.  You expend so much energy in thinking you’ll never live up to your father’s impossible standard only to find that he never wanted you to in the first place.  He always wanted you to be your own man, and to pass the same lesson on to your own son.  That’s how you make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it.

With a Song in My Heart: U is for…

“Unforgettable” – Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, 1991.

Duet – from the Latin “duo,” meaning two, and the Italian “duetto,” a short composition for two voices.  Yet just because you can combine two voices doesn’t necessarily mean those voices are meant to go together.  Blending a pair of distinct tones can create either a transcendent melody, or an unendurable cacophony.  Some seem meant for each other, while others will remain as incompatible as oil and water, no matter how vigorously they are mixed.  So does the same seem to be said for human connections.  We are forever trying to combine our voice with that of another, to see if we can create music.  We’ve had the first dates that peal like delicate glass bells, and frustratingly, as they become relationships, evolve over weeks and months to a conclusion as sour and clunky as an out-of-tune piano.  We rewind to the start and sing the first bars again with a new partner, and hope that this time we can sustain the harmony.  Often we go through a lot of bad songs before we create the right one.

“Unforgettable” was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1951, and again in 1961.  The latter version was edited and remixed (and supplemented with a saxophone solo) to create a duet with his grown daughter 26 years after his death.  What could be accomplished today relatively easily with home audio software was revolutionary in 1991, and remains haunting still.  Determined to carve out her own way in the business, Natalie Cole had long refused to cover her father’s hits, but finally relented, and “Unforgettable” was the crown on Unforgettable… with Love, which featured twenty-two of the elder Cole’s standards and won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  The idea of duets crafted in the editing room spread to Frank Sinatra’s people, who famously released an entire album full of them the following year (to massive sales, but just as much criticism that Frank hadn’t actually met anyone he was singing with).  What the Sinatra album lacked, and what any great duet needs, is chemistry.  That concept remains resistant to definition; like a paraphrasing of the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark, you just know it when you see it, or feel it.  Though he had died when she was only fifteen, Nat King Cole’s voice had a chemistry with his adult daughter’s that sounded as though this electronically-forged duet was always intended to be.

“Unforgettable” has come to call to mind two distinct periods in my life.  When it first came out it was one of those favorite songs of my grandmother’s, played up at the cottage as twilight stole the sun behind the island across the lake.  I recall one evening my sister and I crouching behind a couch, pressing play and having a couple of stuffed animal puppets lip-synch it for the amusement of the rest of the family.  Occasionally, we’d sing it for real, with squeaky young voices matching the notes but none of the emotion; reciting syllables with mechanical intonations.  At that age, all you can do is imitate.  You haven’t lived enough or felt enough to understand what songs like this are meant to evoke.  Years, a few girlfriends and episodes of heartbreak later, “Unforgettable” came to mean something else.

Even on our worst days, my wife’s voice never fails to enchant me.  Her heart beats with the refrains of the Great American Songbook, and deep, pure feelings bubble over her lips as she breathes life into old songs that emerge refreshed and soulful.  When we were first dating, on one of our trips to our favorite karaoke bar (the place we’d met, in point of fact), she invited me to sing “Unforgettable” with her.  While no one is ever going to mistake me for an Idol prospect, the chance to add my voice to hers – literally – was impossible to turn down.  And like the song says, it remains incredible that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am too.  The chemistry was there from the beginning; we knew it when we saw it.  Best times and abysmal, our harmony continues to sound as harmony was intended.  Because we’ve discovered that the composition of this life was written for the two of us to sing together.  That doesn’t mean that on occasion one of us (usually me) doesn’t go off key, or muck up the lyrics.  Regardless of that, we keep singing.  And the song becomes a movement, the movement a symphony, with different themes and motifs that we discover together and add to the ever-growing pile of pages of sheet music.

When you consider the randomness of our encounters – the glance across the crowded room, the brush past on the street, the friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin’s roommate’s former colleague, the matching by computer algorithm – it’s something of a miracle that we find ourselves connecting at all.  I guess you could look at it as throwing enough darts at a board and hoping that inevitably one will find the target.  How do you account for chemistry then?  How is it then that people do often end up finding their soulmate, that individual who is uniquely, for them, unforgettable?  That’s not a question I’ll be able to answer here, after all, thousands of years of literature that both precede and follow me are, like this, mere speculation on a common theme.  Perhaps it’s enough to be grateful that we are able to find that perfect duet partner, and take solace in the idea that perhaps the music was pointing us that way all along.

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.