My Old Man – a few thoughts …

“Gee, I could listen to my old man talk by the hour.”     — Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Candid shot of Phil -1946.

Candid shot of Phil – Munich, 1946.

Everyone loved my dad. Phil was a great guy. Not handy in any traditional “tool shop” way that lots of dads are – he was rather a builder of sturdy and handsome relationships and a meticulous mender of the sometimes inexplicably tattered or torn fabrics of individual lives. He helped people in ways that changed them fundamentally for the better, and in some cases, I have no doubt, he saved lives.

He was thoughtful in the way of someone who genuinely treated others the way that he wanted to be treated. This meant that all of the advantages of his intellect, money, and even sway – things that he had worked very hard to attain – would be put into play for those he sought to help. The intangible commodity was his time – and as generous as he was with his cash, smarts, and influence, he was purely selfless with his time.

For several years after he died it was not uncommon for me to meet someone – a stranger to me – whom he had helped out in some significant way, and who seemed thrilled to recount his or her relationship with my dad to me. But he was no horn-honking self-promoter, so he kept these matters to himself. And he was austerely private so people trusted him to keep their secrets – a man both judicious and discreet.

Here is a personal example: Not long ago I came across a photo album in my parent’s basement. When I was about twelve my dad and I had looked together through those photos from his service days in Germany during 1945/1946. Sitting in our bright basement, looking through the album together was eye-opening and formative. (Both of my parents made the effort to emphasize to me that they were very much more than just my parents.) Seeing my dad in that context was influential and kind of thrilling – a perspective shifter. Here he was young, dashing, single, and far from his home. I thought he was cool, and here was reinforcement — he looked cool.

Lighting a Chesterfield with a 100 Mark note. Pretty gangster.

Lighting a Chesterfield with a 100 Mark note. Pretty gangster.

Phil in a familiar position - standing behind one of his pals.

Phil in a familiar position – standing behind one of his pals.

There were plenty of photos missing from the album, though, and below the dark, blank spaces, the same name appeared in white ink in my father’s tidy handwriting: Delores – Dolly. It became clear pretty quickly that he’d had a Bavarian girlfriend and all her photos were absent. Dolly, I later learned, was for a time my father’s fiancé. Dolly and Phil in the Black Forest; …Phil with Dolly in Zugzpitz Mountains; …in the Valley below Hohenschwangau; … picnicking with Dolly and friends Inge, Holda, Mirinna; … at castle; … swimming at Lake etc.

Delores - Dolly, missing.

Delores – Dolly, missing.

“Where are these pictures?” Man, did I want to see what Delores looked like.

A favorite of Phil's - did Dolly look like Kim Novak?

A favorite of Phil’s – did Dolly look like Kim Novak?

“I took them out when your mom and I got married.”

“Yeah, where are they?”

Or, maybe she looked like Lee Remick, another favorite of Phil's.

Or, maybe she looked like Lee Remick, another favorite of Phil’s.

“They’re gone.”

“I want to see them.”

“They’re gone.”

“Why did you do that?” I was baffled. Who was this exotic person?

A wordless, steady stare was his response to my last question, and my father’s message was clear. Even though those pictures were from years before my parents ever even met, those pictures were gone for many good reasons. Here was a man both judicious and discreet.

****

I am just rereading the one sentence messages my dad wrote on the backs of stacks of German postcards as a 20 year-old noncom. It is like rediscovering the words of a monkish Haiku master like Bashō or Issa. From Berlin, a street scene: “The three statues on the right represent three stages of German life, from childhood to old age.” From Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a mountain lake scene: “The hotel on Lake Riessersee is the best place to stay if you are in Garmisch as you can get everything from a shoe shine to a manicure.” Betraying his nascent fascination with a Mad King, from Rosenheim:

Right near this town is / Chiemsee, where another of / Ludwig’s castles sits.”

Shortly after he died I came across one of his many notebooks. On a few of the central pages of the book, he had listed and written the definitions of different cloud formations: Cirrus, cumulous, nimbus, stratus. Seeing the beautiful cloud definitions in his handwriting – I thought I had discovered a secret collection of his personal poetry. Few people in my life have matched my dad’s gift for finding a little magic in mundanity. And believe me, the guy liked paddling in smooth water – simplicity and directness were treasured by him and these qualities equated to goodness. But for Phil, even the commonplace contained abracadabra shades that could be discovered and explored.

My dad liked to drive around in the country, and sometimes would hit the road on a Saturday or Sunday with no special ambition beyond driving through a couple of small towns near our bigger one, seeing what we could see, and maybe meeting a couple of new folks. Sometimes he went alone or with my mother, but mostly he took me along. As a kid it was great just being around him, and to see him really relax and indulge in pleasant wandering was an instructive treat. He might stop ­­­­­at a shop on the paved block or two afforded these little towns and buy something – maybe chat a while with some locals – then hit the road again.

Me and my old man - 1973.

Me and my old man – 1973.

Sometimes in the late summers we would stop at one or another of the produce stands that popped up sporadically on the pretty, undulating highways of central Nebraska. He would select different types of melons, sweet corn, and tomatoes. When they were available he would buy grapes and as we drove along he would have me pluck a few from their stems and place them on the angled air conditioner vents in the dash. Then the old waiting game was on, “How many miles until you think those babies will be cold enough to enjoy?” A master of delayed gratification.

He was not much for the radio – especially in the car. On the rare occasions that he tuned in to something, it would be a baseball game, or if there was some particular news or weather he wanted to learn about. But there was music. He would sing or hum, and he could whistle beautifully. On car rides I would alternate between looking around at the countryside and wedging my nose in a book – Jack London, Kipling, Peanuts, Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost – and as we cruised along, floating through the pale yellow cabin of the 1973 Impala would be the sounds of my dad singing Sinatra, humming Dixieland Jazz or Nelson Riddle, whistling Sousa or Seventy-six Trombones.

Casper.

Casper.

It was my dad who taught me the importance of variety, the value of learning lots of things. Music was a big part of his life growing up, (especially with his brothers – all of them could play and sing,) so appreciating music became a big part of my life too.

Much of the music that was meaningful to me in 1970s and early 1980s continues to be meaningful. Likewise for my dad, the music of his childhood and his young adult years stayed important to him. In their vintage, those mid-70s to mid-80s songs are currently as far removed from today’s new music as they were to the big band and show tune dominated pop music of the World War II era. (Thanks to friend Rich for this thought-bender.) So there was that same separation for my dad. As he’s been on my mind a lot lately, I have tried to think of some music that was made since he died in 1991 that he could get behind. A couple of tunes he wouldn’t have minded singing along with – whistling or humming as he headed down a summer road.

— He would have liked the clear-voiced storytelling and the terrific, complicated melodies. He would have loved the harmonizing – I can imagine him singing along to these.

Meadowlarks from the self-titled debut by Fleet Foxes (2008 Sub Pop).

Lorelai by Fleet Foxes from Helplessness Blues (2011 Sub Pop).

— Nice strings and pretty orchestration with another clear-voiced storyteller. Kind of swinging.

Wonderful from Subtitulo by Josh Rouse (2006 Nettwerk Music Group).

— Phil’s wheelhouse – this slays.

Slave To Love from The Jazz Age by Bryan Ferry (2012 BMG).

— My dad would have liked the piano on this and the lyrical sentiment of living true to oneself.

Jane from Ben Folds Live by Ben Folds (2002 Epic).

— I have seen her work well described as “songs of romance, possession, and psychological horror.” Allison Goldfrapp and her group, Goldfrapp, would have perplexed Phil with their insistent dissonances and repetitions. But the elegant restraint, the simplicity, and the effortless charisma of the vocalist and her songs – he could have got behind all that. This is a live version of a song from one of my all-time top ten records.

Alvar from Tales of Us by Goldfrapp (2013 Mute).

— This one is older. He would sing this one in the car from time to time – and I am sure he sang it to my sisters. For me, he changed the lyric to “Where are you going my little man?”

Turn Around from Time To Think by the Kingston Trio (1963 Capitol).

14 July 2016

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Transistor

I don’t get many voicemails, and it had been a long time since I last looked at my phone’s log. Apparently, about two years. At the log’s end were three voicemails from July 2014 – messages from my mother, who died six months ago at 87. I listened to the oldest message today, from 24 July 2014 – she sang me ‘Happy Birthday. I would have been turning 49 that day but in her voice is the transporting gentleness of someone singing a lullaby to a child.

Friend to many, the transistor radio.

Friend to many, the transistor radio.

My mom reserved her singing voice chiefly for birthdays and had a great sense of humor about it. She knew it was poor but wouldn’t have realized how much she was able to make up for with its very beautiful sincerity. Each birthday my sisters and I would look forward to being charmed by a singularly quiet and straightforward version of the birthday song, either preceded or followed by her own wide-eyed and funny deprecations regarding her skill level.

In a ‘meta-meta’ moment, I was taken back nearly two years to the time she left that voicemail – and also back to the sounds of the summer of 1971 when I turned six. In the 1970s the orderly kitchen of our house would echo with the anemic sounds of KRGI, a local AM radio station. Metallic strains pinged out from my mom’s small, inexpensive, single speaker transistor – often playing top 40 songs.

I looked back and that summer of 1971 had a fair share of fine top 40 hits that were songs of unrequited love, like I Don’t Know How To Love Him by Yvonne Elliman, Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers, and It’s Too Late by Carole King. But perhaps the best of the lot came later that summer. With its lonely opening melody, a solitary oboe giving way to strings, The Carpenters had a massive top ten hit in 1971 about a young woman and her obsession with a musician. The song transcends its specific topic and becomes something more – a potent capsule of universal yearning and loneliness.

Written in 1969 by Bonnie Bramlett with Leon Russell, ‘Superstar’ has been performed by a host of singers including Vicki Carr, Cher, Rita Coolidge, Peggy Lee, and Bette Midler. (Delaney and Bonnie recorded the original 1970 version.)

Karen Carpenter - beautiful sincerity.

Karen Carpenter – beautiful sincerity.

This version is most powerful, and it is a great example of the clarity and beautiful sincerity of Karen Carpenter’s voice.

Superstar by The Carpenters from Carpenters (1971 A&M Records).

Late summer of 1971 my sister Beth would have been entering her senior year of school, and The Carpenters (along with maybe Joni Mitchell, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Fifth Dimension, and others,) would have made tens of thousands of revolutions on her record player that summer.

I got a text from Beth last week during a PBS documentary about The Carpenters that we both happened to be watching in our separate cities. She messaged a memory from when she was 14 or 15, “I remember sitting on the curb listening to the radio & hearing We’ve Only Just Begun & thinking that I had found the next big thing.” She had, indeed.

Super high, on life. Carpenters fans, my sisters Andrea and Beth. Circa 1977.

Super high – on life.
Carpenters fans, my sisters Andrea and Beth.
Circa 1977.

We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters from Close To You (1970 A&M Records).

The old kitchen transistor led a double life. Away from its tidy daytime home in the burnt orange and bronze mid-western kitchen of my mother, it also entertained us in the evenings from the pale curb of our bleached out, summertime street corner. After my sister Beth graduated and while my sister Andrea was in high school, my neighborhood friends and I would gather in evenings from April through October, and the little transistor frequently made the scene, spilling out tinny hits.

Preteen Sansabelt. With my much cooler, open-collared, neighborhood friend, Darren. I suppose that later, he danced with cute girls to a Carpenters song or two. Circa 1975.

Preteen Sansabelt. With my much cooler, open-collared, neighborhood friend, Darren. I suppose that later, he danced with cute girls to a Carpenters song or two.
Circa 1975.

On Sundays Casey Kasem presided. American Top 40 was the soundtrack to many twilight games of kick the can and neighborhood track meets or bike races. Pretty much throughout my elementary school years – The Carpenters were just…around. They had forty-six singles over about a dozen years – Christmas songs – television appearances and specials – 1970s ubiquity. Anyone could like them and most everyone did – from my mom, to my sisters and myself, to tastemakers at Rolling Stone Magazine.

Karen and Richard by Annie Leibowitz.

Karen and Richard by Annie Leibowitz.

Things really change. Probably around the time I went to junior high, I didn’t pay much attention to them anymore. My tastes were evolving. By the time I was in high school and college their squeaky clean conventionality, their homogeneity, their perceived lack of any edge … well, it would have put me off.

But man, now when I hear some of the songs – I am right back on East Phoenix Street in old Grand Island – a little kid chowing a bowl of Quisp in the kitchen with my sisters – the transistor playing good stuff that bounced off all the hard surfaces and landed upon our ears. I allow myself to be unselfconsciously sentimental now and I also hear the incredible craftsmanship of Richard Carpenter’s arrangements and the

great playing – the effortlessness of Karen Carpenter’s sterling vocals – all of these, for a time, mistaken by myself as fogyish, mushy drivel. I was just wrong then.

Kim Gordon is a fan, and her band Sonic Youth not only covered ‘Superstar’, she also wrote and sang a wonderful tribute, ‘Tunic’. Both are clickable below.

Cooler than all of us, Kim Gordon.

Cooler than all of us, Kim Gordon.

Superstar by Sonic Youth from If I Were A Carpenter (1994 A&M Records).

Tunic (Song For Karen) by Sonic Youth from Goo (1990 DGC Records).

Andrea was the first of us to have to celebrate a birthday without a serenade from mom, but we’ll each take a turn now in the coming months. So will our spouses, our nephews and nieces, our cousins. I saved her voicemail, so I can bust it out if I feel like it next month when I turn 51. I’ll play it for you sometime if you want.

Close To You by The Carpenters from Close To You (1970 A&M Records).

16 June 2016

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You Bring The Summer

Music was all around us – carrying thinly through the still, humid air – bright sun blazing down as we splashed in the Platte River. Clear, insistent beats oscillating in cool, dimly-lit bars and basements. All the windows down – wind surging through the car – furry melodies, whipping, aswirl, as we’d tear down country roads sending up diaphanous, starlit walls of dust in the twinkling night.

Happy songs, sad songs, and love songs – summertime rules, and summer tunes work to lift us up, to even us out, and to send us into quiet contemplation. For me, the formative summers of the early- and mid-1980s are easy to revisit through the time machine of music.

Drew Citron

Drew Citron

I am always on the lookout for something new, and still love those songs that gave my young summer world its shape. Here is a sample of a few new and a few old songs for summer.

I love Drew Citron’s voice and her guitar power pop band Beverly. They recently released one of my favorite records of the year, The Blue Swell. This dreamy music is mostly light and it shimmers around the edges, but there is heft and darkness to be found at its core. Strong lyrically and melodically, Beverly provides great hooks and beats with this superior summer music.

Lake House & Don’t Wanna Fight by Beverly from The Blue Swell (2016 Kanine Records).

All Songs Considered does it again – the weekly NPR show is great for turning me on to new music and artists. Recently they featured the terrific summer song linked directly below by Esmé Patterson, a musician from Portland, OR. This tune put me in the mind of some of my friends’ and my favorites from college summers in the early- and mid-1980s, like Oh-OK, R.E.M., and Let’s Active. Enter the time machine here:

Feel Right by Esmé Patterson from We Were Wild (2016 Grand Jury).

Esmé Patterson

Esmé Patterson

Here they come … celebrating fifty years, the trippy, fun 1960s television phenoms The Monkees are back! Good Times is their new album and it features each of the ‘prefab’ four (yes, even the late Davy Jones is represented with some vocals.) The album includes songs written by Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Paul Weller, and many others. This bubbly track was written for the boys by XTC’s Andy Partridge.

You Bring the Summer by The Monkees from Good Times (2016 Rhino).

Kristin Kontrol

Kristin Kontrol

The marvelous shapeshifterKristin Welchez shed her post-punk Dum Dum Girls persona, Dee Dee, and has embraced synth-pop. She now performs as Kristin Kontrol, and this tune would not have been out of place pulsing from the basement ‘boom box’ in 1984. Her new album was released last week.

(Don’t) Wannabe by Kristin Kontrol from X-Communicate (2016 Sub Pop).

My favorite record of 2015 came from the Montreal quartet No Joy. They are back mid-July with more of their killer, summer sounds. Here is a ripping tune that picks up where they left off:

A Thorn In Garland’s Side by No Joy from the forthcoming EP Drool Sucker (due 15 July 2016 Topshelf Records).

What would the Romantic, minor key and chord geniuses Claude Debussy and Erik Satie have made of Radiohead? The Oxford lads delivered another masterpiece recently called A Moon Shaped Pool. Below are two links. First, a live version of a song that is perfect for a sultry evening on the patio. Share it with someone you can sit and be quiet with, and have a glass of something cold and strong. The second song is perfect listening for floating alone in the pool at the blinding, blistering end of a summer afternoon.

Present Tense & Daydreaming by Radiohead from A Moon Shaped Pool (2016 XL Recordings).

Here are a few ‘summery’ songs from the early-80s vault.

They were sublime….from Georgia,Oh-OK:

Such N Such & Straight by Oh-OK from the 12” Furthermore What (1983 DB Records).

Oh-OK's sublime "Furthermore What"

Oh-OK’s sublime “Furthermore What”

They were sparkling….from North Carolina, Let’s Active:

Every Word Means No & Make Up With Me by Let’s Active from Afoot (1983 I.R.S.).

Irreplaceable, masterful – Prince:

Take Me With U by Prince and The Revolution (w/ Apollonia) from Purple Rain (1984 Warner Bros.).

Fall in love…The Psychedelic Furs:

She Is Mine by The Psychedelic Furs from Talk Talk Talk (1981 Columbia).

30 May 2016

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You Bring The Summer

Music was all around us – carrying thinly through the still, humid air – bright sun blazing down as we splashed in the Platte River. Clear, insistent beats oscillating in cool, dimly-lit bars and basements. All the windows down – wind surging through the car – furry melodies, whipping, aswirl, as we’d tear down country roads sending up diaphanous, starlit walls of dust in the twinkling night.

Happy songs, sad songs, and love songs – summertime rules, and summer tunes work to lift us up, to even us out, and to send us into quiet contemplation. For me, the formative summers of the early- and mid-1980s are easy to revisit through the time machine of music.

Drew Citron

Drew Citron

I am always on the lookout for something new, and still love those songs that gave my young summer world its shape. Here is a sample of a few new and a few old songs for summer.

I love Drew Citron’s voice and her guitar power pop band Beverly. They recently released one of my favorite records of the year, The Blue Swell. This dreamy music is mostly light and it shimmers around the edges, but there is heft and darkness to be found at its core. Strong lyrically and melodically, Beverly provides great hooks and beats with this superior summer music.

Lake House & Don’t Wanna Fight by Beverly from The Blue Swell (2016 Kanine Records).

All Songs Considered does it again – the weekly NPR show is great for turning me on to new music and artists. Recently they featured the terrific summer song linked directly below by Esmé Patterson, a musician from Portland, OR. This tune put me in the mind of some of my friends’ and my favorites from college summers in the early- and mid-1980s, like Oh-OK, R.E.M., and Let’s Active. Enter the time machine here:

Feel Right by Esmé Patterson from We Were Wild (2016 Grand Jury).

Esmé Patterson

Esmé Patterson

Here they come … celebrating fifty years, the trippy, fun 1960s television phenoms The Monkees are back! Good Times is their new album and it features each of the ‘prefab’ four (yes, even the late Davy Jones is represented with some vocals.) The album includes songs written by Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Paul Weller, and many others. This bubbly track was written for the boys by XTC’s Andy Partridge.

You Bring the Summer by The Monkees from Good Times (2016 Rhino).

Kristin Kontrol

Kristin Kontrol

The marvelous shapeshifterKristin Welchez shed her post-punk Dum Dum Girls persona, Dee Dee, and has embraced synth-pop. She now performs as Kristin Kontrol, and this tune would not have been out of place pulsing from the basement ‘boom box’ in 1984. Her new album was released last week.

(Don’t) Wannabe by Kristin Kontrol from X-Communicate (2016 Sub Pop).

My favorite record of 2015 came from the Montreal quartet No Joy. They are back mid-July with more of their killer, summer sounds. Here is a ripping tune that picks up where they left off:

A Thorn In Garland’s Side by No Joy from the forthcoming EP Drool Sucker (due 15 July 2016 Topshelf Records).

What would the Romantic, minor key and chord geniuses Claude Debussy and Erik Satie have made of Radiohead? The Oxford lads delivered another masterpiece recently called A Moon Shaped Pool. Below are two links. First, a live version of a song that is perfect for a sultry evening on the patio. Share it with someone you can sit and be quiet with, and have a glass of something cold and strong. The second song is perfect listening for floating alone in the pool at the blinding, blistering end of a summer afternoon.

Present Tense & Daydreaming by Radiohead from A Moon Shaped Pool (2016 XL Recordings).

Here are a few ‘summery’ songs from the early-80s vault.

They were sublime….from Georgia,Oh-OK:

Such N Such & Straight by Oh-OK from the 12” Furthermore What (1983 DB Records).

Oh-OK's sublime "Furthermore What"

Oh-OK’s sublime “Furthermore What”

They were sparkling….from North Carolina, Let’s Active:

Every Word Means No & Make Up With Me by Let’s Active from Afoot (1983 I.R.S.).

Irreplaceable, masterful – Prince:

Take Me With U by Prince and The Revolution (w/ Apollonia) from Purple Rain (1984 Warner Bros.).

Fall in love…The Psychedelic Furs:

She Is Mine by The Psychedelic Furs from Talk Talk Talk (1981 Columbia).

30 May 2016

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William, Bill for short

A couple of sketches and some songs, with gratitude.

You wanted to hug him when he was around. And he was a guy who would link arms with you while you walked, or he would take your hand and hold it while you chatted together. You can see his pale pillowy fingers on top of yours, both your palm and his facing down on the tabletop. He leans in to listen, his eyes narrow a bit – sometimes he pats the top of your hand. Like a gently smiling prophet or a benevolent Mafia don – a character, and yet thoroughly himself.

A Character

A Character

You wanted to make him laugh and smile. You craved his approval. But you also wanted to hear the wonderful variety of sounds he would make. The breathy machine gun bursts of ‘heh heh heh’ popping out of a tight smile to betray his instant, unfakeable delight. Or the reflective, sighing chuckle – his hands upon his broad belly, working to keep it steady. The hilarious, full-throated roar that seemed somehow to come from his wide-open eyes as much as from his round mouth. His little teeth. His laughing-moon face tilted to the sky, like a modern day Falstaff or Tevye – a character but completely himself.

You wanted to get him alone. He was among the finest listeners you will ever know and he always elevated the conversation with his taste and opinion. His voice assured. He was an alloy – blending the sensible, unbendable metal of ranch-town boy with the assured and shining precious metal of city sophisticate – a fusion of so many things, and yet absolutely singular.

You wanted him to live longer. Though you surely spent many hundreds of hours together over scores of evenings, in theatres and bars, basements and living rooms, you would like an hour more.

His sensibility. His sensitivity. His style.

It is now nearly three years ago that he died and you cannot believe it. You hope and perhaps you even believe that he has not so much gone away from you – gone away from us – as he has gone toward something else. To be a most generously memorable fellow – beyond. Oh, Bill.

Fortunately, music can act as a time machine, and you will have the chance when you listen to these songs that he loved, (that you were thrilled to introduce him to, that you just knew he would love…) to close your eyes and be in his company again.

From Portugal, combining transcendent vocals with elements of classical, folk, and chamber music – the incredible Madredeus.

Madredeus

Madredeus

O Paraiso the complete album by Madredeus (1997 Metro Blue).

O Paraiso

O Paraiso

Ainda the complete album by Madredeus (1995 Metro Blue).

Transcendent vocals, Teresa Salgueiro of Madredeus.

Transcendent vocals, Teresa Salgueiro of Madredeus.

Anseio (fugo apressado) by Madredeus from Movimento (2001 Metro Blue).

Oh, William, these thoughts are put down quickly and with great gratitude. It was a pleasure. You were a treat.

12 May 2016

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