Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My life in music, part three

Starting in grade school, my sister and I had two friends that we spent almost all of our free time with, up until they moved to Florida when we were all in high school.  They were a set of identical twin sisters, in whose basement we spent countless hours talking, playing pool and listening to records.  I remember in particular two of those LPs: the huge double album that was the American Graffiti soundtrack, and Tea for the Tillerman, by Cat Stevens. The former featured between-song rants by none other than Wolfman Jack, a shadowy figure to me at that time.  I had no idea that was his actual schtick.  (And I still get chills when I hear "Runaway" by the great Del Shannon.)  The latter had, among other delights, a great track called "But I Might Die Tonight!"   Both those records take me back to a time when my experience with music was much more limited, and therefore more precious.

In high school, I kept up my obsession with Elton John by enshrining every mention of his name that I could find in one of several scrapbooks (I seem to recall having three or four of them by the time I went to college).  Nineteen seventy-five was insane; I still consider it "Elton John year" and  possibly the height of his career (an Oscar for "The Lion King" notwithstanding).  The man was everywhere, on every TV show you could think of, every awards show, and playing in what seemed like every venue. 

I didn't get to see him till the following year, and what a first concert: my dad took me to Madison Square Garden to witness the Louder than Concorde, but Not Quite as Pretty tour.  (For the uninitiated and the just plain too young to know, the Concorde was the plane that made the first commercial supersonic, transatlantic flight.  This trimmed the normal 7-8 hour New-York-to-London route down to three hours.)  Somewhere I might still have the tour program; does anyone sell those anymore?  All I ever see at shows now are shirts, bags, posters, etc, most of them overpriced to boot.

In those years I had two main outlets that serviced my intense musical needs: on Friday nights, it was the Midnight Special; on Saturday nights, Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was the attraction.  For someone who attended few concerts, those shows were a Godsend. 

They couldn't have been more different.  Midnight Special was hosted by the amazing Wolfman Jack, and featured live performances by musicians and stand-up comics.  It was fun, especially when you mixed the Wolfman in with all those crazily-attired Seventies musicians.  He was so excited that he made you excited about what you were going to see.  The audience got to sit on pillows in front of the stage, like they were in the world's biggest rec room.  I'm not even going to try and name all those who were on the Midnight Special, but one performance stands out: the very first music video I'd ever seen, by a little English four-piece called Queen.  "Bohemian Rhapsody" was its name, and I can't speak for anyone else watching, but my mind was properly blown.  I just saw an ad on TV for a DVD set of Midnight Special, so now I know what I want for my next birthday.

Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was a little more mannered.  The show began with Kirschner himself, comically stiff and apparently not accustomed to speaking in front of a camera, introducing the acts for the evening.  Naturally, I had no idea of Kirschner's contribution to the music world and how far back it went until many years later.  Then the viewers would be ushered into an actual concert, in an arena, with that night's musicians, to be mesmerized by a performance they would never see anywhere else.  In fact, I'm not sure that series was ever brought to VHS or DVD.  I remember in particular a great show that featured Loudon Wainwright III, Tom Chapin, and the late Harry Chapin, whose music was so much more than pop radio ever gave him credit for.  Years later I found out that Harry Chapin had been instrumental in lighting the fire for the anti-hunger benefit that became Live Aid, a project that, sadly, only came to fruition after his death. 

Wolfman Jack became an inspiration for me while I was in high school.  He did a late-night show for a year or two on WNBC; that fact, and the transfer of Cousin Brucie (Morrow) to NBC, pretty much cemented my loyalty to that station.  Plus, WABC was almost always in the midst of a huge contest, a plea for ratings if ever there was one.  Damn, just give me someone great to listen to, a live voice, someone whose enthusiasm will cause mine to ignite as well.  I don't care about contests!  Give me the crazy guy who howls like a wolf and keeps me listening until my head droops and my eyes can't stay open.  I still recall the night my sister and I spent at a new friend's house.  Even though I'd seen him on countless Midnight Specials, I heard the Wolfman, really heard him, for what felt like the first time, and all I could think was: who is this guy?  Where did they find him?  And where do I sign up for a job like that?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My life in music, part two

As I got older and supposedly more sophisticated, I was pretty much glued to the radio.  Due to my limited music-buying budget, I used to lie in wait on Saturdays with my portable tape recorder (a birthday gift from my folks).  Whenever a favorite song would come on, I'd pounce, hitting "record" and "play" as quickly as possible.  No high-tech recording in my world; I certainly had no intention of doing anything illegal with those songs.  I don't remember if I ever listened to those tapes. I think the point of them was simply having the songs in my possession, so to speak.  In fact, I may still have a box of them.  I'm sure they're as full of static and the sounds of me telling my sister to shut up as they are of the music I was so obsessed with.

This was also the era of the K-Tel collections, which were mostly sold on TV.  As I discovered when I bought one, they were indeed crammed with current hits (much like the Now That's What I Call Music series).  Of course, there were 20 songs squeezed onto a 12-inch vinyl LP...which meant that all the songs lasted about 2-1/2 minutes, whether their running time was actually that long or not.  The thing I remember most about that collection was Rod Stewart's version of the Sam Cooke song "Twistin' the Night Away."  I'd never heard the original at that point, so I had no way to compare, but I liked it then and still do.

I became a devoted fan of the American Top 40 program, hosted by Casey Kasem, which aired on Sunday mornings (usually winding up about the time we got back from church).  What fascinated me in particular was hearing songs that were never played on radio where I lived.  Since the Top 40 was meant to represent airplay on a national level, it was yet another way I was able to discover new music. It was weird to find that a song I'd never heard on local radio was in the Top Ten nationally.  And it was exciting, every week, to witness the rise and fall of various songs, some I loved, and some I probably haven't heard or thought of since.

When I was in middle school, I had a peculiar habit: I kept a notebook in my locker with song lists.  If you're on twitter, you know how occasionally people will post their song of the day?  I've always found that amusing, like it's a new thing.  Well, that's what my notebook was, a listing of my songs of the day.  I figured, my head was already filled with music; why not allow myself to concentrate on one particular song all day long, which would be the background in moments not occupied with other thoughts (like those pesky school assignments)?  It's almost like I was trying to create a soundtrack for myself in those pre-portable-music days, kinda like when people say they'd want a certain track as their "theme song."  (We obviously have a pretty inflated view of ourselves nowadays.)  

I had no such opinion of myself; I simply lived in my own head quite a lot, so, just like my room, I wanted it to be filled with my favorite things.  Had they existed, I definitely would've been one of those kids who'd be attached to an mp3 player, wearing my earbuds during passing time and in study hall.  As it was for me, my greatest pleasure was listening quietly with those great big headphones (known as "cans" in recording studios) if I was down in the living room, or lounging in front of the record player if I was in my own room.  I recall having my friend Susan over one weekend.  She was a pretty quiet girl, not unlike myself, and I smile even now to think of the two of us, reading and listening to music, not really talking at all, or feeling the need to do so.

Speaking of reading, one of my obsessions with music meant that I had to know all the words.  It drove me insane when I wanted to sing along and didn't know what to say.  This is the kind of evil that spreads those infamous "misheard lyrics" far and wide, causing unintentional hysteria amongst the masses. Of course, part of the power of music that you like, and that your parents don't like, is that they can't understand the words either.  You have the power if you know the words, both for singing along and for the joy of getting it.  And as we all know, getting it is everything.  And so Hit Parader magazine became my new best friend.  Not only did it feature lyrics for all the great songs I'd hear on the radio, but it had amazing articles by Lisa Robinson, Legs McNeil, and even Wayne County.  (If these names don't mean much to you, you're too young to be reading this and should move on to something else.) 

Talk about living vicariously: Lisa Robinson was a denizen of the NYC downtown scene, hanging out at places like the fabled Max's Kansas City, and later, CBGB's; Legs McNeil was a gonzo reviewer cut from the same cloth as the late Lester Bangs; and Wayne County was...Wayne, and was later Jayne.  She was originally he, and from the South, where they apparently didn't cotton to boys who dressed like girls.  This was mind-blowing stuff, but it also opened my eyes to a world I could only hope to join.  Lisa...I wanted to be her: the first Aerosmith interview I ever read was by her.  The article started out, "Aerosmith is a punk rock band."  This before punk was an actual form of music.  Legs: I wanted to meet him (and Lester Bangs, for that matter) and listen to him talk music.  And Wayne/Jayne...I would like to have seen her perform.  The love of all those people and what they stood for came to fruition when (years later) I happened upon an LP called New York New Wave, which featured the song "Max's Kansas City", performed by Wayne County and (his) Backstreet Boys.  Wild shit, and an entree into the music I'd missed by being so young then.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Places That Are Gone #1: Peterson's Sunset Cabin

Of all the things I try to share with my kids when we visit New Jersey, there's one that I really wish I could, but I just can't.

When I was in grade school, my dad worked, and my mom stayed at home with me and my sister.  She was there when we went to school; she was there when we came home.  We ate out, sure, or got pizza from the local pizza parlor (FYI, Little Caesar's and Domino's do not qualify as pizza parlors), but mostly we ate home-cooked food.  My mom was a terrific cook in those days.  My folks are retired now, and her cooking skills, while still good, don't get the exercise they once did.  But my point is that eating out was a lot rarer in those days than it is for me and my family.  Meals out were special, for actual special occasions, like birthdays.

On the first day of school, every year without fail, my parents would take us out to eat.  And pretty much every year, we'd go to Peterson's, located by the railroad tracks in Lakewood, New Jersey.  As the name implies, it looked like a cabin on the outside, albeit a rather large one with reddish-colored logs.  We'd pass through the front doors and have to walk past the big long bar, lit up only behind the bottles, to reach the dining room.  This was a large open room, at the far end of which stood the charcoal grill, where most of the food was prepared.  I used to sometimes walk over to that grill, never getting too close due to the heat, and watch the cooks as they worked.

Peterson's specialty was grilled and barbequed meats, prepared over that fire I was so fascinated with.  They had steaks, chops and chicken.  When I'd order the chicken, it always made my sister groan: in the era when restaurants like that made everything to order, chicken took extra time.  I didn't mind, and neither did my parents; they always indulged us at Peterson's.  If I recall correctly, the menu didn't have warnings about the perils of eating undercooked meat (unthinkable!), but advised the diner that if he/she wanted to order the filet mignon well-done, then "have it the way you like it, and all others be damned."  Pretty radical stuff for a steakhouse menu, no?

The salad was kind of interesting, and something I don't think I've seen since: the wait staff would bring out a big bowl with quartered wedges of iceberg lettuce.  You'd place one in your wooden salad bowl and dress it with your choice of, I think, Italian, blue cheese or French dressing.  God, but I loved blue cheese dressing back then.  I don't even remember tomatoes, olives or even carrots in that salad--just the lettuce wedges.  You had to cut them with your steak knife in order to eat them, but oh well.

The baked potatoes were something else again.  They would arrive with a little wooden spear in them, a sign of sorts, that informed you the potato had been "rubbed, scrubbed and tubbed" so that you could feel free to eat the skin if you liked.  My childhood eating habits welcomed this innovation.  I would butter the potato and eat a layer; then butter it again and eat another layer, until finally I'd consumed the entire thing.  (No wonder I myself was pretty "tubby" back then.)  I might add that those were big Idaho potatoes, the likes of which I no longer consume at dinnertime, since they're so enormous and I'd actually like to be able to eat the rest of my dinner too.

Aside from me ordering the charcoal-broiled chicken, I think my sister would usually have a burger, well-done, thanks, and my folks would've enjoyed steaks.  I don't recall having appetizers, or my parents even offering them.  With the dinners we used to eat at Peterson's, I doubt whether we would've had room for anything extra.

Peterson's went out of business some years ago, and I recently found some pictures of the condemned building on the internet.  As I understand, it was torn down within the last few years, and so it now lives on only in the fond memories of those who dined there.  Too bad.  Oh well, my older kid's a vegetarian now anyway.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My life in music, part one

I'm from Jersey.  I grew up in a nice suburban house with a nutty Italian nuclear family.  I was never big into music till I was about 11.  In 1972, I lost my beloved grandfather, and I guess part of me was looking for some comfort. I was a huge nerd, and not in a good way. I was fat, with crooked teeth, and glasses; so, just your normal suburban kid who didn't get out much.

Thinking back to before that time, though, I'm sure I was aware of the Beatles, whose music took over so much of the 1960s.  I'm also pretty sure I was aware of the (Young) Rascals as a kid, who were a New York group that pretty much (for me, anyway) started the whole concept of "blue-eyed soul."  (Not sure there were many actual blue eyes in a group led by a pair of Italian brothers, but what do I know?)  My two favorite songs of theirs (if you don't count "Good Lovin' ") would have to be "How Can I Be Sure?" and "Groovin' ".

I definitely remember "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond; I used to stand in the hump in the middle of the back seat of my mom's car and dance to it, in fact.  This activity was, of course, only performed when the car was parked, and stopped the day I hit my head on the inside car roof.  And I know I was a huge Monkees fan (still am--don't judge me), because I watched their show religiously on Saturday mornings.  I don't think I even knew it was on at night (same with the Batman TV show).

But back to my main topic.

I think it may have been on a vacation (in Florida?) sometime during 1973 when I started hearing a record by Elton John: "Daniel."  It was amazing; I'd never heard anything like it. (My first two musical obsessions were Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, in that order, so you can see I'd lived a pretty sheltered life till then.)  But there was something about that record that attracted me, and so in short order, I bought Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player: my first LP.  I don't know where I got it from, but I strongly suspect it came from the Two Guys department store in Bricktown.

I also remember my first 45: "Superfly", by Curtis Mayfield.  What this little white girl was doing with the theme song from one of the biggest blaxploitation flicks of all time, I'll never know.  At the time, I simply liked it, and it seemed natural to buy it if I liked it and had the cash.  The why of the situation never entered my mind.  My love of those two records (very much worn, but still in my collection) grew and blossomed, and I became a stark raving music fan who apparently spoke a different language than everyone else around me.

Back in those days, it seemed like every store had a record department: the Two Guys; the home improvement store where I bought "Superfly"; Bambergers (later Macy's) department store at the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown; even the locally-owned drugstore.  I remember seeing the first Led Zep LP for sale there.  I know now that's what it was, due to the iconic cover featuring the Hindenburg explosion.

I had a strict rule for playing my LPs: front to back, both sides, no exceptions.  One of my cousins would simply stand or sit at his record player and play songs randomly by picking up the needle and moving it wherever he wanted it next (a lot of work, for those of you who've never known the joy of a vinyl album).  Or he'd just play one or two songs and move on to something else.  It drove me crazy.  This behavior was neither allowed nor tolerated on my own turntable.  My feeling was (and still mostly is) that an LP has a story to tell, even if it's not what came to be called a concept album.  It's still sequenced (or should be) in a particular order, and breaking up that sequence was a definite no.  Playing an LP out of order would've been like reading a novel backwards: it would cause the continuity to be disturbed, and the sense of it all to be lost.

This was a time when radio stations actually broke new music by playing it, a radical idea in these troubled times.  In fact, unless you had some really cool friends or older siblings, or lived in or near a big market (like NYC), radio was pretty much the only game in town when it came to finding new music. You heard it, you liked it, you bought it.  Simple.  We listened to AM radio, WABC and WNBC, with Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison, Ron Lundy, even Don Imus.  (The delights of flagship album rock station WNEW were a few years away on my personal horizon, but I'd get there eventually.)

I had my own way of discovering new sounds: I'd play the B-sides of my 45s.  As pathetic as that might have been, due to my limited record budget, I found some really cool stuff.  Elton John, in particular, seemed to specialize in featuring non-album B-sides, meaning that when I flipped one of his 45s over, I was getting a treat that less adventurous souls would never enjoy.  It was amazing to find that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were actually a double A-side single, and not just pressed that way to make money for the record company.

And though we loved WABC and WNBC, truly, the playlists were pretty limited.  From 7th grade onwards, I attended a school in the district where my dad taught, which was 30 miles from home.  So this required a daily commute, during which we'd usually listen to WABC.  I recall my dad remarking that they played the same songs every day.  I'm sure they did, but I didn't care.  Just hearing those songs, being allowed to hear them on our journeys, was enough.  This was no small feat when our carpool partner normally had his radio tuned to a news station every day (pretty sure that it was 1010-WINS, a far cry from its halcyon rock'n'roll days with Alan Freed) I know the first time I heard it, I kept waiting for the news to be over so the songs would start up again--but they never did.  I was out of my element for sure.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What I Want for Mother's Day (sarcasm alert)

I've been a Mom now for 17+ years.

I can't say it's the toughest job you'll ever love, because let's face it, being a parent can suck.  You have to clean up shit and various other bodily fluids and emissions; change sheets when the kids wet them; deal with various friends/pets/enemies of your kids', etc, ad nauseam (literally).  Not to mention the financial burden while your kids are unemployable (and often thereafter).

Yeah, it doesn't seem like there's much to recommend parenthood at any age.  I always tell people who are in thrall of their sweet little newborns and infants that God makes them cute and helpless when they arrive, so that you fall hopelessly in love with them and don't lock them outdoors when they most deserve that treatment.  And let's not even get into the general behavior that makes you want to leave them out in the cold. Kids can be ungrateful little monsters to you, the person who brought them into the world, and who pays for everything, while giving up their lunch money, time and love to almost everyone else (see aforementioned friends/pets/enemies).

But I'm getting off topic here.  Once a year, for my efforts, including but not limited to car rides, cooking, rides for the friends (doesn't anyone else with kids have a car?), trips to the mall, clothing, laundry services, lunches and dinners for all citizens of the house at any time; once a year, I am permitted the small honor of being a Mom on Mother's Day. 

As if.  Yeah, I try to time it so that I don't have to do laundry on that day. (My husband, bless him, is pretty good at all that shit; in fact, he's often cleaner than I am when it comes to chores.)  Sometimes I get to go out for breakfast or brunch; often we'll have dinner with my in-laws, and my father-in-law (an amazing cook) will make dinner.  When I lived in Jersey and my Nana was still alive, my mom and her sisters would have us all go out that day to celebrate the matriarch of our little clan.  That was pretty cool.  My kids and husband will make me breakfast now and again, and bring it to me in bed.  Sadly, there's not room for the food and everyone else on our bed, so that's kind of a clumsy affair.  We normally just use the kitchen table nowadays.

Once in awhile I'll get to go shopping, alone, which I confess is my greatest joy at an age when my kids seem to think the umbilical cord is still attached.  Their father, a part-time military guy, has sometimes been away for long stretches, and they tend to forget about Dad as a viable alternative to Mom.  I mean, is it wrong to want some time for yourself, a room of one's own, to quote Virginia Woolfe?  I try not to barge in on my kids (unless I believe they're doing something they shouldn't be), so why do they do that to me constantly?  Is it just for the fun of it?  My younger child seems to find particular joy in sneaking up on me silently (carpet) and scaring me out of what's left of my wits.

So, back to the main question: what do I want for Mother's Day?  Well, a card would be nice, for a start, especially one I didn't have to take the kids to buy for me.  That's my husband's job.  The list of things I don't need would be: perfume (I have about a dozen kinds and frequently don't wear it at all); scarves (ditto); clothing or shoes (too hard to find the right item); jewelry (especially that Pandora shit; WTF?); and most practical items (i.e., mixers, blenders, knives) unless specifically requested.  Before you go thinking that I'm a gold-digger, please note that I've been very happy on Christmases past to get things like a roasting pan or a new crockpot, because I asked for them.

I don't necessarily need big-ticket items, like a fur coat; but a new car would sure be nice for my daily commute.  A trip is also out of the question, unless a special event happens to occur on that date.  Tickets to see a favorite band or other show would be terrific, but I can normally buy those myself.  No, I guess the thing I'd like most is time: time to go shopping alone, time to work on my writing, time where nobody's going to ask me to do anything for them. 

I'm not trying to be selfish.  Well, hell: yeah, I am.  But I'm trying to make it into the best kind of selfish.  The kind that allows me the peace of mind I get when my needs have also been met, and not just the needs of everything and everyone around me. 
When you have kids, all other needs are eclipsed.  You fuss over them, worry about them, feed them, change them, find them a good sitter, work to support them; their needs are more important than yours will be for many years.  This is necessary. 
But not forever.  They're supposed to leave the proverbial nest at some point (mine are still too young), and be able to deal with life themselves.  And you're supposed to have properly prepared them, and be able to let go.  Or maybe they can just find the scotch tape themselves.

When my older daughter was about four, I drove to Illinois and took a train into Chicago to see a performer I very much admire.  My husband was in charge of taking care of her for a day or two.  I still remember the train ride into the city, as well as the rest of the trip, as being one of the most exhilirating events of my life.  That was the first time since our daughter was born that I'd actually done something for me, and not just for her.  I didn't feel bad, though, because I knew she'd be taken care of. 

I did think about her much of that night and the next day, of course.  And while I enjoyed walking around the little neighborhood where my hotel was, having breakfast alone and wandering into a couple of shops (she scored a new book that morning, too), I felt peaceful in a way I hadn't in a very long time.  It was like being freed from everything, but still anchored to my little family.  When I picked her up from our sitter on my way home, I felt like a different person.  And I want to feel like that person again, as often as possible.

And if you're still stuck on buying me a gift, I'll be happy to accept a new night light for the bathroom.  I'm easy.