Category: approaching-40

Approaching 40: American Pie

Some songs identify with very specific times and places. And for that reason, when I hear Don McLean’s “American Pie” I’m reminded over driving over the bridge in Fall River, Massachusetts. I think I was going to work with my dad one day. Once you crossed the bridge into Fall River, Battleship Cove was off to your left and there was a kind of warehouse off to your right. It seems to me that we went to this warehouse for some reason. Playing on the radio in the background was “American Pie” and to this day, I can’t hear the works, “…took the Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry,” without thinking of that scene.

I don’t know why that is. It begs the question for how memories are stored. Are some scenes cross-indexed by the songs we hear? Or the smells we smell?

At the time, I knew nothing of what McLean’s song was really about. To me it was just one of those long, story-like songs that had a nice rhythm and interesting lyrics. It was many years later that I learned what the song was about, but that didn’t really change anything for me. It still reminded me of Fall River.

Approaching 40: Hey Jude

I have a fondness for what I consider to be one of the worse Beatles songs of all time: “Hey Jude” which I believe was written by Paul McCartney. (Don’t bother telling me what a great song it really is, that it was written for Julian Lennon after his folks, split up, etc., etc. I stil think it is a pretty bad song.) Despite that, when ever I hear it, I am transported back to our playroom in Warwick, Rhode Island. One year, for Christmas, my brother and I got our first combination radio-tape deck. The coolest feature was that we could record songs off the radio. Well, perhaps that wasn’t quite the coolest feature. The coolest feature was the ability to record ourselves. And my-oh-my did we record ourselves. Mostly, we recorded ourselves belching for loud extended periods into the microphone. It was great good fun, but thank goodness those tapes are lost forever.

But being able to record off the radio was pretty cool, too, and somehow, we managed to record the Beatle’s “Hey Jude” which, even at the ripe old age of ten I knew to be a pretty awful song. I remember pretty clearly thinking that McCartney must have phoned this one in. (I was at the stage of thinking such sophisticated thoughts.) After all, the majority of the song was nothing more than a “Na, na-na, nana-na-na, nana-na-na, hey Jude.” That said, for some reason, we enjoyed playing it again and again and again and again. Gosh, even thinking about it now I find myself back in that playroom, with the old-fashioned, antique school room desks, with ink wells, and our tape-deck/radio between us as we sang the lyrics, such as they were, over and over again.

There is a part in the song where McCartney eventually bursts out with a “Jude-jude-a-jude-jude-a-judy-judy-owww!” or something like that, and my brother and I relished in singing that part. It was always a guess for us of when it would occur in the song and it wasn’t until sometime later that I realized it came in the very next verse after the horns came in.

This is one of those songs that is not from the era in which I was growing up, but somehow became part of my musical autobiography. It brings back some fond memories of those days when my brother and I spent a lot of time together. We fought frequently, but every once and a while, we’d stop in our fighting, and say, “Buddies?” and if we both agreed, it would signal a truce between us, and things would be just great. Yes, “Hey Jude” reminds me of that, despite being a fairly mawkish song. Go figure. And my apologies to all of the Beatles fans out there. I am very sorry that Paul wrote such a mawkish song in the first place.

Approaching 40: Photograph

Some songs become a kind of lifelong anthem, they just stick with you in inexplicable ways. In early 1983, Def Leppard released its third studio album, Pyromania. It became the first popular rock album of the 1980s that my brother and I actually owned–the ’33, of course, and we played that album endlessly. I can’t say if I was a Def Leppard fan before that album, but I’ve been one ever since, even if I’m not particularly fond of their stuff after Hysteria. But whenever I hear the opening chords of “Photograph” from the Pyromania album, I’m instantly transported back to those early days of the 1980s. Indeed, I have a very specific memory of this song. My brother and I were hanging out with some friends in the front yard of our next door neighbor, discussing the band. My parents had gone to the movies with said neighbors, and I believe they went to see The Exorcist.

What we were discussing was one of those badges of youth that matter for reasons that make no sense once you are a few years older. Could we name all of the members of Def Leppard. If you could name all of the members, it meant you were a true fan of the band. If you could not name all of the members, you were just a wannabe fan. Looking back on it, it was an utterly ridiculous proposition. Who cares whether or not you could name all of the band members. All that really mattered was that you liked the music. And indeed I liked that music and that song is still one of my favorites. According to iTunes, I’ve listened to the song 76 times, but I know that in the nearly 30 years since the song came out, I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and enjoyed it each and every time.

Approaching 40: Rio

We moved to Warwick, Rhode Island in the fall of 1979. The day we moved in was particularly memorable. I got my bike out of the moving truck and proceeded to ride it around the street until I crashed mouth-first into a parked car. Off I went to the emergency room. It would not be my last visit there. Still, we had a new house, just constructed, in a quiet neighborhood, not far from our school. And we were on the verge of a new decade, something that I was only vaguely aware of at the time.

Our house in Warwick, RI. Photo taken this past fall, 2011.

The music from that new decade, the 1980s, was to become the anthem of my formative years, much as I imagine the music of the 1950s did the same for my parents generation. In the summer of 1981, MTV got its start. I can remember watching it after school, first at a friend’s house, and later at my own house. This was back at a time when MTV played nothing but music videos and had 5 outstanding “v-jays,” four of whom can still be heard on Sirius XM 80s on 81. There were several early videos that I can remember seeing, but the one that sticks in my mind most clearly and that is Duran Duran’s “Rio.” For me, that song represents the beginning of the 80s, a great musical era and an interesting time for me as well. Whenever I hear that song, I think of hanging out at my friends’s house, watching the video and then playing some Atari.

What I find interesting about the 80s is how long it seemed and how quickly it passed. I turned 8 years old in 1980. In the summer of 1980, I completed second grade. Ten years later, in the summer of 1990, I graduated from high school and was just a few months away from heading off to college. All in the 80s. It’s perhaps the most unusual decade in my life, in that respect, because it was the decade in which I was growing up and changing. No other decade was quite like that one, and it is no wonder that the music from that era left such an impression upon me. The only other era of my life equally well-defined by the music was my junior and senior years in high school–something we will get to in due course.

  1. It should come as no surprise that I listen to this station frequently.

Approaching 40: Take the Long Way Home

Growing up in Somerset, New Jersey, I had a good friend who lived across the street from my house. We did a lot of stuff together. I’d go over to his house to play; he’d come over to my house. Beginning in kindergarten, we’d walk to school together. I can remember discussing astronomy with him when I was in first grade. Sometimes, in the late afternoons, we’d be hanging around his driveway when his dad would get home from work. His car would pull into the driveway, he’d get out, see us, and say “Hey fellas!” My young self always thought that was the coolest thing in the world–to be called a “fella” sounded very grown up to me.

One afternoon, my mom woke me from my nap with some sad news. This I can remember as if it happened yesterday. My bed was along the wall of my room that ran through the center of the house. On the other side of that wall was my parent’s room. Behind me was a window facing the front of the house and through that window, I could look across the street to see my friend’s house. I don’t know that remember seeing anything unusual outside the window that day, but after waking me from my nap, my mom told me that my friend’s dad, the one who’d called me “fella” had died.

Some time later, I was at my friend’s house. My family was going to be moving to Rhode Island and I was hanging out in my friend’s room. He put on a 45 of Super Tramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.” Ever since, that song has reminded me of those last days in New Jersey, hanging out with my friend, and of his dad, who would get home from work, smile, wave, say, “Hey fellas!”

Approaching 40: Greased Lightning

Sometime in 1977, my parents took me and my brother to see Star Wars. We saw it at a drive-in theater the first time. I don’t remember a lot of the details. Later we saw it again in a regular theater and I remember it much better. One day, quite possibly in the summer of 1977, my mom took me to see Grease with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. I say it was the summer because it was a daytime movie, a bright and sunny day. That much I remember very clearly. I don’t remember much about the movie, but not long after, we acquired1 the Grease album. And it was indeed an album, a ’33 with all of the songs from the movie2.

We listened to that album endlessly and I learned all the words to all of the songs. And I would sing them often and loud. Now, I was just repeating the words that I’d heard in the album. Most of the time I had no idea what I was actually singing about. I look back on the song “Greased Lightning” with particular horror in this respect. I don’t know why, but I always had a deep-seated fear of even pretending to recognize profanity in front of my parents, let alone utter it. My brother had no such compunction. But there I was, 5 or 6 years old and singing (and even trying to imitate the dancing) to “Greased Lightning”:

With a four-speed on the floor, they’ll be waiting at the door,
You know that ain’t shit, we’ll be gettin’ lots of tit, greased lightning…

My parents must have been so proud. And then, to add additional luster (or tarnish) to that pride, I’d ring out the line:

With new pistons, plugs and shocks, I can get off my rocks
You know that I ain’t braggin’, she’s a real pussy-wagon, greased lightning…

Interestingly, “Greased Lightning” is one of a few songs that remind me of two completely different eras in my life. There’s the one that I’ve just described, at 5 or 6 years old. And then, in my senior year in college, I went through a period of listening to the Grease soundtrack when walking to and from my classes. I remember walking back from class on a Friday afternoon with massive thunderheads piling up behind me and the air completely electric. I barely made it into the apartment before the downpour started, accompanied by wild lightning and thunder (and even some hail). It gave an entirely new meaning to “Greased Lightning.

  1. The way I remember it, the album was a Hanukah present. I received The Macmillan’s Children’s Dictionary and my brother got the Grease album.
  2. At the time I had no notion that it had been a book and a musical, too.

Approaching 40: Just the way you are

For nearly 30 years, my grandparents lived in the same apartment just off old Nyack Turnpike in Spring Valley, New York. They were among the first occupants to move in sometime in the early 1970s and my grandfather reluctantly moved out in 2000 after he’d had a triple bypass. That apartment and its surroundings are forever fixed in my mind as a happy part of my childhood. We’d visit my grandparents frequently when we lived in New Jersey and a little less frequently when we moved to Rhode Island. Somehow, Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” became a kind of anthem for their home.

I can recall as a youngster, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, standing out in the grassy yard in front of my grandparent’s apartment house. On countless days and evenings, me and my brother and our friends played in that yard tirelessly. But this song reminds me of the times that I would just stand out in the yard, and watch the cars drive by on Old Nyack Turnpike. It was a narrow, two-lane road, enclosed on both sides by tall trees. The sunlight would filter through the leaves and branches in just such a way. Back then, it wasn’t a busy road. A car here, a car there. On the nights we’d stay over at my grandparents, I slept in a corner bedroom and would listen for the sounds of cars on the road. I could practically tell the time from the frequency (or infrequency) with which I heard them rumble by.

There was a playground back behind the parklot and I can remember swinging on the swings there at an early age. I loved it there! There were woods in which we’d play tag. I once got the idea in my head to map out the trails in those woods and spent weeks in the summer play cartographer and coming up with a detailed and accurate map. I can recall playing whiffle ball in a small lot by the lower parking lot. After the sun set, the bats would come out and dive at the balls that were hit high into the air. Sometimes we’d hit pop flies just to watch the bats dive at the ball.

In later years, as I got older, I’d sit on the patio with my grandpa, surrounded by the wind chimes he’d made from steel pipes and we’d chat or read the paper, or just listen to the cars rumble by.  I suppose in many ways, it was my equivalent of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. And any time I hear Billy Joel’s song, I’m instantly transported back there, a kind of time travel of the imagination, as rich in detail as if I actually stood on that damp grass. Was it really more than three decades ago? It boggles the mind!

Approaching 40: Bohemian Rhapsody

In August of 1977, my younger brother, Gregory, was born. I was five and my little brother, Doug, was 3. Gregory was born prematurely and he died 11 days later. I remember visiting him at the hospital. He was an an incubator and we could don special gear and touch him. He was very tiny. I remember being at the hospital on the day he died. I was in a waiting room and there was a dry-erase whiteboard–the first one I ever recall seeing–that I played with. After a while, my grandpa came in and picked me up and sat me in the windowsill and told me that Gregory had died. I was 5. I didn’t know what to feel, but I knew that people cried at times like this, so I started to cry.

There was a funeral that I have only the vaguest memories of. But for some reason, whenever I hear Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” I am always reminded of the road off which lies the cemetery where Gregory is buried.

I have the odd ability to remember the lyrics to a song after hearing them once. I’ve had this ability more or less as long as I can remember. Sometimes, I misinterpret what I am hearing and my lyrics, especially when I was younger, are not quite right. I don’t think I ever thought much about the lyrics to songs when I was very young, but the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody” always stuck with me, especially the line that goes, “Mama just killed a man. Put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he’s dead…” It was an eerie line and the song always disturbed me, until I found a new appreciation for it when the Wayne’s World movie came out.

Some years later, probably in 1981 or 1982, I remember getting home from school in Warwick, Rhode Island (we were latchkey kids) and sitting down in the kitchen before anyone else got home. I sat on the floor and I just started crying. I mean bawling. I’d been thinking about Gregory and at nine or ten years old, I had a much better understanding of what it all meant than I did at five. I must have cried for fifteen minute, there in the kitchen before I pulled myself together and moved on with my day.

Sometimes I think I should think about him more than I do, but it was so long ago and my memories of the time are sketchy at best. I think I got everything out of my system that day in my kitchen. Now that I am approaching 40, I wonder, on occasion, what it would be like if Gregory had lived. He’d be 35 himself, incredible as it seems. He could very easily have a family and children of his own. What would he do for work? Where would he be living? What would his favorite baseball team be? My brother Doug and I took a road trip to Cooperstown several years back and had a blast. What would it have been like if it was all three of us?

I suppose Gregory lives on in his own way in our memory and to some extent in my fiction, where he has made numerous anonymous appearances. Like the song says, we are all caught in a landslide; there is no escape from reality.

Approaching 40: Cats in the cradle

It was the 1970s. In our ranch-style house in Somerset, New Jersey, my parents had living room furniture that reflected the era: a velvet, maroon sofa with accompanying swivel chairs and a maroon tile-surfaced table. It was in that living room area that my Dad would read Dr. Seuss books to me. My mom would read to me, too, but for some reason, I mostly recall her reading nursery rhymes. The nursery rhymes quickly became familiar to me. I think I memorized most of them. (I had the ability to memorize quickly, which gave the illusion early on that I could read. I couldn’t I’d simply memorized what was on the page.)

Around that 1974/1975 time frame, Harry Chapin came out with a song, written by his wife, as I understand it, called “Cats in the Cradle.” The song was about how quickly time goes by once you have children. But I didn’t know that. When I heard the song on the radio, I instantly recognized the reference to childhood nursery rhymes: “And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon…” and I quite naturally assumed the song was about the nursery rhymes my mom was reading to me from a big book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

It’s wan’t until years later that I realized what the song was really about. And now, with a little boy of my own, the song takes on even more meaning. I find myself saying to the Little Man, on occasion, “Sorry, buddy, I can’t play right now, I’ve got work I have to do.” Almost always, that night, I think of this song, and think of the passage of time and that I will someday regret those moments when I tell the Little Man that I can’t play because I have work to do. I try to avoid that as much as possible. I was lucky enough to have parents that made time for me and my natural inclination is to do the same for my own children. It is to my shame that I am not always successful, but I do my best. And thinking of this song helps.

Approaching 40: Afternoon delight

When we lived in New Jersey, we would often drive either to my grandpa’s gas station in the Bronx, or my grandparent’s house in Spring Valley, New York. In either case, the drive was about an hour from where we lived and while in the car, my parents would play the radio, so I got to hear whatever “hits” were being played at the time.

When I was about 4 years old, sometime in 1976, the Starland Vocal Band had a hit (and I think they might have even won a Grammy) for their song “Afternoon Delight.” Now, before you jump to conclusions, remember: I was four years old. I loved this song,whenever I heard it, but not for the obvious reasons. I thought the song was about fireworks.

Remember, it was 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, and there was a big to-do about the Fourth of July, the first one I remember distinctly. The chorus of the song goes, “Skyrockets in flight / afternoon delight.” Naturally, I thought the song was about fireworks and specifically, about the Fourth of July1. In fact, it was the Bicentennial that turned me on to the joy of fireworks. A year later, in 1977, I made the papers with my fireworks bravado:

photo (1).JPG

It wasn’t until many, many, many years later that I heard the song again and realized what it was really about. I probably sang the song when I was four. Wild horses couldn’t keep me from singing what I heard on the radio. If I didn’t know the words, I’d make them up. But I had no idea what I was singing, honest, I didn’t.

  1. I will admit here that I might not have been the most sophisticated four-year-old.

Approaching 40: Welcome Back

I don’t actually remember ever watching Welcome Back, Kotter, but I do remember demonstrating my impressions of the some of the characters on the show to various family members. I have no idea how or why I had the desire to mimic these characters. Apparently, however, I had some meager ability. I could do Arnold Horshack’s laugh, for instance. When I’d go visit my grandpa and uncles at their gas station in the Bronx, I’d be asked to demonstrate these abilities. “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” I’d say. The people around me would laugh and I would be pleased. Naturally, with this kind of response, I delighting in performing on demand.

I always liked the theme song for the show, “Welcome Back” as recorded by John Sebastian. I have a memory of returning home from a Mets game1 in the late 1970s and hearing this song on the radio. So whenever I hear the song, I’m reminded of crossing various bridges on the way home from Shea stadium. Then, for a very long time, I didn’t hear the song. When I finally did hear it again, decades later, I was certain it was Randy Newman singing the song. But it’s not, it’s John Sebastian. I would have bet money it was Randy Newman.

Despite my enjoyment of the song and my well-received impersonations of the show’s characters, I have no desire to go back and watch the old episodes, the way I do for some shows. Hearing the songs simply provides some fond memories. And it also provides an example of an early talent, if you can call it that. I can still do some voices and impressions today. Maybe it was just a quirk of the structure of my vocal cords, I don’t know. But I trace the ability back to Welcome Back, Kotter. Who knows if I would have ever discovered that talent, had I never watched the show.

  1. I was and am the only Yankees fan in my family. The rest were all Mets fans. I use this as evidence that I am the only normal one in the family.

Approaching 40: Do you know the way to San Jose?

Do you remember your first 45?

If you are older than I am, the answer is likely to be yes. But if you are even a few years younger than me, the answer is likely to be “Huh?”

I don’t know where it came from, but the first musical (as opposed to story) 45 I ever had was Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way To San Jose?” single. I’d guess I was five or six at the time. I don’t ever recall listening to this song at home, but I recall quite vividly listening to it at my grandparent’s house in Spring Valley, New York. Whenever I hear the song, I am back there in that apartment, with the patio that faced Old Nyack Turnpike and the light filtering in through the blinds just so. I can see the furniture as it was in 1977 or 1978. I can feel the stringy carpet on my feet. And in the background, I can hear the crisp sound of this song playing on the record player with all of the pops and clicks concomitant with the device.

I had no idea where San Jose was of course. (Since then, I’ve been to San Jose countless times.) But I knew it was in California. I also knew that San Francisco was in California. Back then, there was a commercial on TV for Rice A Roni. “The San Francisco Treat,” the slogan went. The commercial showed a cable car cresting a hill in San Francisco. Somehow, the two became intertwined in my head so that I cannot hear “Do You Know the Way To San Jose” without thinking of Rice A Roni, and I cannot see a box of Rice A Roni without hearing “Do You Know the Way To San Jose” in my head. Strange how those things work, isn’t it?