Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics

I am a child, I’ll last a while. You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.

You hold my hand, rough up my hair, it’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

I am a Child, Neil Young

The band was Buffalo Springfield – Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina.  It was 1968 and they had released what would be their final album – The Last Time Around.  A teenaged hippy baby sitter named David was watching us for the evening.  I am certain when my father saw him in his psychedelic shirt and Birkenstocks, he mourned for the future of America.  The teenager was holding a number of record albums under his arm. “ Hey, little dudes”, he cooed as he flipped back his hair, surveying the four boys under 13.  My dad gave my mother that one last “ are you sure about this look”.  She smiled.  He was the oldest son of one of her dearest friends and was a great kid.  “ let’s go, Miles” she said.

Within seconds of my parents reversing onto the street and driving off toward some exotic liaison with other adults in a land of tinkling martini glasses and swirling perfume, the loading mechanism was dropping an LP on to the rotating turntable.  Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young initiated the first track called On The Way.  As David grinned and fell into my father’s favorite lounge chair, I gathered on the floor and listened.  Eight songs later, a gentle harmonica led Neil Young into a soft ballad about being a kid.  “ I Am A Child” was the first melody where I can recall hearing the lyrics that were about me and how I felt.  The question of “what is the color, when black is burned?” came to symbolize for me a unfiltered world filled with innocent wonder.

Someone once reflected that “music is what feelings sound like.”  When you become a teenager, music, lyrics, books and perhaps your best friend are the only things in life that can be trusted.  As a writer filled with teenaged angst, I fashioned myself a lyricist and wrote bad songs – I mean, really bad songs, inspired by a counter cultural generation of poet songwriters who used words and music as a wedge to liberate feelings that lay trapped behind a generational door.  Whether it was Jackson Brown warning me that the “ the (earth’s) fuse was burning” or Stephen Stills reminding me to savor “ those top down nights when the air was red wine”, these sages of song seemed to know what lay ahead on the highway of life.

My first exposure to the mystical power of the lyrics was in 1977 on a silky Southern California summer night as we sat in my friend Phil’s bedroom screwing up our courage to play the White Album by the Beatles backwards.  It was rumored that the Charles Manson and his blood thirsty “family” had slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca along with actress Sharon Tate after hearing hidden messages on the White Album’s Revolution Number Nine.  “ If you play it backwards, the song says, ‘turn me on dead man’.” Sean warned.  Our other friend Brian nodded, knowingly. He was clearly disturbed by our experiment.  It was if we were playing with a Ouiji board on his grandmother’s grave.  He and Sean were devout Catholics and this all seemed like some great cosmic felony to be gathering like devil worshippers to play an LP that divined satanic messages to druggies and psychopaths.

We turned the record in reverse and slowly increased the volume.  It was scratchy at first- perhaps sounding the way Thomas Edison’s voice groaned as he invented his talking gramophone.  But, I could hear it, amidst the swirling mayhem of anarchic music in reverse – a ghostly moan repeating: “ Man-yon-min–man.  Man-yon-min-man”.  In retrospect, it was complete gibberish.  But at that moment, as I looked Brian, who sat like a stupefied granite statue, I felt a cold chill.  Had we sent some demonic homing signal into the night that could only be heard by murderers and long haired Satanists.

“ Did you hear it? He whispered.” I heard it!”  Not wanting to be left out, I agreed that the cryptic modulation could have been from beyond instructing us to go out and wreak mayhem on capitalists – whatever those were.  Just then Phil’s Mom stuck her head in the door and we all jumped ten feet into the air, looking guilty as if we had been caught using bloody chicken feet to outline pentagrams in some secret Satanist ceremony.  “Boys, it’s time to ride your bikes home.  It’s getting late and Mrs. O’Brien just called.” We looked outside and realized that the lingering afternoon had descended into sinister night.  “ You guys gotta go.” Phil confirmed. It sounded like a death sentence.

Brian and Sean disappeared together under weak, intermittent streetlamp light that barely fought off the shadows that sought to take over the empty road.  A van passed slowly and seemed to hesitate as it rolled by.  I was suddenly convinced that the entire Manson gang was following me home ready to plunge forks into my body and carve Helter Skelter in my rear end.  On that fateful night, I broke a land speed record covering three miles on a ten- speed while making countless deals with God that in exchange for my safe passage I would never tamper with the occult or malevolent lyrics again.

Yet, while others devoured music, I savoured the lyrics.  While people fawned over Dylan, I drank in the truth of Simon and Garfunkel and became a closet acolyte of Paul Simon, the songwriter– an oracle who lived in a province governed by emotions and physical forces.  In my lifetime, his lyrics have led me through the ghettos of Soweto and into the lives of the inspired, lost, indigent and misunderstood. “Kodachrome” reminded us how we gild the colors of our past and “ Me and Julio” introduced us to Mama Pajama in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He urged us to go look for “America”.

Lesser known artists created singular works of art – testimonials to the marginalized of their generation.  Janis Ian summed up the broken glass and dark corridors of adolescence in “Seventeen”: “I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skinned smiles who married young and then retired. The valentines I never knew. The Friday night charades of youth were spent on one more beautiful. At seventeen I learned the truth. And those of us with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone who called to say ‘come dance with me’ and murmured vague obscenities. It isn’t all it seems, at seventeen. “

John Lennon’s “Imagine” challenged us to think about a world devoid of war and hate. Don McClean’s American Pie became an anthem to America and rock and roll. Jim Morrison’s tortured literary genius was posthumously set to music and released by former band mates Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzerek and John Dunsmore in An American Prayer.  I feasted on every offering of free verse, attempting to conjure up my anthems to the sacred and the profane – dead Indians, women in ginger nylons, angels and sailors.  This turned out to be more difficult to accomplish in a sedate suburb cocoon where ballads about men with leaf blowers, postmen gone bad and car pool moms who choose to turn left and never look back did not seem to capture the imagination of anyone except perhaps, a child psychiatrist. I would have to wait until life led me into darker, rugged places where the raw minerals of insight and truth could be mined and forged into lyrics that could change the world.

I continued to listen between the lines of the music.  I became a boorish anthology of stories and useless anecdotes about the genesis of songs and the truth behind the music.  My world was shattered one evening when watching a special on the 60’s band Iron Butterfly.  The song, Indagaddadavida, soared up the charts in 1968 and was heralded as the convergence of psychedelic rock and heavy metal – a fulcrum moment in the evolution of the school of rock.  The seventeen minute song was analyzed, memorialized and canonized by legions of bobble headed burn-outs in search of truth and a party.

Years later, band members drummer Ron Bushy and Doug Ingle purportedly admitted that the title song was really intended to be called “ In The Garden of Eden” but that Ingle was so drunk during the recording session that he slurred the words to the track and the alternative version stuck.  All the years wasted trying to define the origins of the word

“Indagaddadavida”.  Sometimes, I learned, the lyrics were just in fact, words and the music was in fact, just music.  Things can be exactly what they appear to be, like the world seen through the unfiltered eyes of a child:

You are a man.  You understand. You pick me up and you lay me down again.

You make the rules, You say what’s fair. It’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

Dad With a Capital “D”

Dad With a Capital “D”

The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. – Robert Frost

I grew up in a house with four boys, where neighbors routinely referred to my mother as “that poor woman” and my father would walk in each night at 7 p.m. and calmly ask, “Who gets the belt?”

“Let’s see,” she would begin.  “Michael and his friends lobbed oranges at what they thought was a slow moving group of cars that turned out to be a funeral procession.  Our garage is full of audiovisual equipment stolen from the middle school after Tom used the glass cutter art kit we gave him for Christmas to cut a hole in the window.  The boys weren’t sure what to do with the merchandise.  Apparently your son does not have someone to fence the goods yet.  Miles was suspended for streaking what he thought was an all girls high school but mistakenly turned out to be the all girls elementary school and Patrick’s school counselor thinks he may have some form of personality disorder, as it’s the only acceptable excuse for his behavior.  Otherwise, it was a pretty good day.”  My father, unphased and a firm believer in corporal punishment, would swiftly mete out justice in hopes that his boys would grow up to be stewards of the community and not wards of the criminal justice system.

My father was a Dad with a capital D.  He would routinely break into tirades over politics, any form of incompetence, and “liberals” – including our local minister (Dad was convinced he was an agent for the KGB).  He never apologized.  Empathy was something “liberals” used as a Trojan horse term for income redistribution.  He never shared his feelings or cried, except perhaps at the collapse of the 1969 Cubs.  He was the king of his castle.  While his boys gave him a run for his money, our kingdom was under the martial law of a benevolent dictatorship – the illegitimate offspring of Pinochet and Marshal Tito.  While no one questioned for a minute that my mother was the real genius behind my father’s “success”, both as a businessman and a parent, he was the executive and judicial branch of the family.  Though Mom’s intuition could detect a fire, fight, any form of alcohol, illicit material or inappropriate behavior within a five-mile radius, he was the man.  Their partnership celebrated its fiftieth year this past summer.

Yet “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” generation carried obvious inequities.  Its chronic male chauvinism and silent female martyrdom led to unresolved conflict and dysfunction.  Later mothers and society, with the help of Gloria Steinem (another Russian Spy), broke through to celebrate equality and liberate women to apply their cunning intuition across a broader field of personal and professional opportunities.  The fathers, the Dads with a big D were left behind.  They grumbled, swore and continued to lament the erosion of societal values along with the slow emasculation of the American male.  As their sons wed and became a next generation of fathers, the sons quickly realized they were entering uncharted waters; Dad with the capital D appeared to be an outdated point of reference.

“I never changed as many damned diapers with all four of you boys as you do for her,” my father mumbled as I nimbly changed my newborn daughter.  He, thinking I’d been neutered in some UFO secret experiment; me, wondering when my wife would offer him a sprig of hemlock to stir his ice tea.  However, as I got older, I regained an appreciation for the big D.

Let’s face it, being a dad today carries a lot of benefits, though my job description is now titled with a lower case d.  While I see growing up in Big D’s house like France under Napoleon, he looks at my house like a twisted version of Lord of the Flies.  In my home, dad gets home from work to a wife and teenaged daughter locked in mortal combat over the amount of midriff her outfit is showing.  Like a UN peacekeeper, I don my blue helmet and try to break up the brutal internecine fighting, only to have them both turn on me and chase me into my office.  When disciplining my two boys, I’m supposed to use intimidating language like, “Let’s use our inside voices,” and the brutally decisive “Okay, mister, this time you really have lost a privilege.”  Dad with a big D wants to vomit.  The boys react to me as if I have the retaliatory power of Luxembourg and continue with their misbehavior.  You know what finally works?  A page out of the old Big D’s playbook – the occasional yell, immediate intervention, and the threat…always followed up with determined consequences.

Evolution is a funny thing.  The old big D Dad had to go, but the little d dad has to develop new tricks and methods to ensure his survival.  Occasionally activating those less politically correct genes to keep the herd moving west isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s nice to remember you can combine the soft skin of restraint and compassion with the hard sinews of being decisive, fair and tough – little d and big D combining to make a better man.

Arson and Old Laces

www.Army.mil
Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Arson and Old Laces

As a child, I was a backyard arsonist.  In the era of Vietnam and hidden enemies, my friends and I would spend hours, away from the watchful eye of my Mother, presiding over conflagrations of epic proportions.  It usually involved carefully laid Airfix 54 mm plastic soldiers advancing through a dense jungle of ferns and ivy toward a defenseless Marine firebase, and it was our job to “lay down that protective cover of napalm.”  Napalm took the shape of anything flammable.  As curious, red-blooded American boys in the ‘60s, we had never heard of things such as travel sports, electronic games or TVs with more than 13 channels.  We had more than enough time to discover the inflammatory properties of every liquid in our medicine cabinet, bathroom, cleaning closet and garage.

We quickly determined anything with alcohol content worked well to protect our besieged soldiers.  As the VC crept in, we showered them with a horrific ordinance of paint thinner, gasoline, model airplane glue, English Leather cologne, canned hairspray and Old Spice spray deodorant.  The air was a bittersweet miasma of odors and excitement.  The final barrage was intense.  We watched with great satisfaction as the enemy soldiers turned molten black and collapsed in utter defeat, melting literally back into the dirt, just yards in front of the protective wire of the grateful Marines.  The black eddies of thick toxic smoke would swirl and flicker with fire and, like Westmoreland, we would be satisfied.  As kids, we fashioned every conceivable homemade weapon and waged war on one another, building forts and digging ditches (the 20-foot tunnel we dug under the garage that almost caused it to collapse into a sinkhole during a rainstorm is another story…)

Our arsenal included firecrackers, crossbows that shot sharpened, green gardening stakes, slingshots made from surgical tubing, smoke bombs of salt peter and a healthy dose of imagination.  We had time and tools at our disposal.  We would leave the house every morning like pets being let outside, returning only for food or medical attention.  We floated like leaves blown from season to season.  If it was spring it was baseball or soccer.  Football in the fall.  Basketball in the winter and of course summers – a blur of day camps, sports, and long bicycle rides in search of a pool, creek, mischief or anything that could work up or relieve a good sweat.  Sport seasons were a maximum of 10 to 15 games followed by an all-star team that was usually thrown into a single elimination tourney against local towns.  There was really no such thing as travel or year-round sports.  I rode my bike to and from school.  A car ride to a friend’s house was an indulgence and walking home when the bike had a flat tire was standard.

My arson is now limited to my fireplace and my soldiers are arranged in neat rows in a display case, wishing a small child would break them out of their glass prison to wage war once again.  My bike has been replaced by a Lifecycle in the New Canaan Fitness Club.  My children have no interest in following in my footsteps.  They are too preoccupied and too in need of immediate gratification to meticulously build dirt bunkers, stick forts or rock bulwarks.  In addition to rarely playing in the dirt, their feet rarely touch the pavement – with muscles developed around soccer, not pedaling a single speed bike up a steep hill.  They are driven everywhere like dignitaries; the concept of walking is met with a martyred moan.  Couple this with society’s increasing trepidation that walking anywhere is unsafe…that the ubiquitous van full of pedophiles is out there, touring our neighborhoods looking for unescorted children.

I’m not sure if I am an anachronism complaining how society has gone to hell or whether there is legitimate cause for concern.  One of my peeves: is it really necessary to “declare your major” by the fifth grade when it comes to sports?  The pressure to specialize earlier and earlier has second graders in a 10-game soccer season and parents getting wound up over playing time and worried over nascent motor skills.  Meanwhile little Johnny is still pooping in his pants.  The beauty of trying everything is you gain different experiences and become more balanced.  Generalizing perhaps reduces your chance to become a multi-sport Varsity starter or a shoe-in to Yale, but you end up decent at inter-mural sports, passable at tennis, par at Frisbee golf and a great Trivial Pursuit partner.  Less organized activities sometimes brings a bonus of time – minutes of margin to innovate, imagine, experiment and, yes, occasionally get into trouble.

It seems that most kids literally have very little time for mischief.  And when they do, it becomes the great headline in our local newspapers.  Is it a sign of the decline of western civilization if kids occasionally go off “the reservation”?  Is it worrisome if they sit around the house, complain about being bored, and then get the ultimatum to go outside or start folding laundry?  Perhaps, one of them will wander over to the stream next to the house and dam it up until it overflows on to the Murphys’ property, getting me a late evening call from Charlie about the newly re-routed stream jutting across his driveway.  My Dad got those calls once a week.  Wilson tennis ball cans will be converted into a makeshift mortar that launches flaming number three balls into the twilight, triggering UFO calls from residents on West Road.  Perhaps a son or daughter might see a can of spray paint, then spy the hammer, nails and old wood, then build something – a catapult?  A crossbow?  Do I sound like Dr. Evil?

Given their schedules and our watchful eyes, it’s highly unlikely many kids will ever smell the acrid smoke of a burning battlefield of plastic soldiers.  Some would say that is a very good thing.  But I wonder…