Music: Valentine’s Day

 

Yesterday, in many ways, you’ve looked into my eyes

Seems so strange for all the many years together

Sitting by the window, couldn’t move you if I tried

I’ve been standing on the outside here forever

Blood Sweat and Tears 4 arrived late in the summer of 1971 – a going-away gift for my impending departure for the University of Alaska. At the time I was living at the ranch alone and working as many hours possible before joining my family on a vacation in the lower 48. Cooking my own meals and getting myself up and to work on time  also seemed to be a good transition to leaving home …but to be honest it was lonely and a little scary living by myself.

Candles lit an empty room when you and I last talked

And the bed made warm by lonely lovers

I have seen a thousand highways, walked a hundred roads

But for you I know there’ll be many others

I was also having second thoughts about leaving. There were some unresolved  relationship questions brewing the angst only an eighteen-year-old can know and I had finally shed my “transplanted Californian” identity for that of a Peninsula boy content to live his life between Turnagain Arm and Katchemak Bay. For as much as I wanted to get on with my life I was feeling hesitant.

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

Blood Sweat and Tears’ fourth album was a move back to their landmark eponymous second album with more original tunes and fewer covers. It generated two Top 40 hits1 but my favorite song on the album didn’t show up until track two on the B side: Valentine’s Day by lead guitarist Steve Katz. Katz was to the band what Peanut M&M’s are to trail-mix:  When you’re several miles out and sick of sesame seeds that peanut M&M can make the heavens open and choirs sing. It was the same with Katz’s work: He didn’t sing very often, but when he did he was great.

Darkened halls and hotel walls will keep me in disguise

While your brown eyes look for what you have forsaken

Better times are far behind me, I can’t quite forgive

Cause for all that you have given, you have taken

At the time I knew little about Mr. Katz other than what I could glean from the record jackets or the rare BS&T articles that showed up in the national press. Adolescent logic being what it is I decided that anyone whose music so effectively punched my buttons had to register at least 9.7 on the Richter scale of cool so I did my best to emulate his look with tinted glasses, harness boots and my too-long-for-Dad’s-taste hair parted in the middle.

Saddened by a country tune, I cried myself to sleep

Looking for my footsteps softly leaving

I have seen a thousand highways, walked a hundred roads

But for you I give you freedom to believe in

In the soldier-part of my life one of my assignments involved imagery interpretation – gleaning information from aerial photographs. I was totally lost looking for tall, skinny upright objects like power poles or missiles until I figured out that you don’t look for the teeny-tiny top of the object – you look for the shadow cast to one side that points like an arrow to your target.  The lyrics in Valentine’s Day function in the same manner:  the oblique descriptions of surroundings, veiled references to past events and understated emotion all point unerringly towards a disintegrating relationship – without being patently obvious.

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

Even lyric-less the break is possibly the most evocative part of the song. Chuck Winfield establishes a melody on the trumpet… but then Lew Soloff joins in with an additional solo on the piccolo trumpet that both parallels and departs from the basic sound.  To my heart they map the dichotomy between the actual path of life and the path life could have taken – the almosts and could-have-been, which were exactly what was on my mind in that late summer of 1971.

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

…and with that “wind blowing” reference we’re back to that archetype young David hitchhiker with sun on his face, the wind to his back and the whole world on his mind. 2

  • Aching to be with someone
  • Knowing the road to his future won’t let him
  • Foregoing immediate gratification for the good of another

Heavy thoughts for an eighteen-year-old but all very valid concerns. That’s why Valentine’s Day is a rarity among my favorites in that it is linked with more than one time in my life when I was in the same situation. That identical challenge of foregoing my personal interests for the sake of someone vulnerable came about both the following winter and again in the winter of 1976 –  both those times I derived comfort from this Steven Katz bit of brilliance.

…so when my Beautiful Saxon Princess sees me space out listening to Valentine’s Day and she asks l what year the song has taken me to,  I simply answer: “Which one?”

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

 __________________________________________________________________________

 

1)    “Go Down Gamblin’” and “Lisa Listen to Me”

2)    See Music: Fire and Rain

Music: Main Street

I had no idea I would miss her so badly

I’d left for FT Lewis with the assumption that I’d be channeling Mr. Spock for six weeks and remaining in complete control of my emotions.  As much as I loved Lori there was an element of reserve in my heart, an emotional bunker left-over from a devastating break-up years earlier but after the initial chaos of travel and check-in I noticed a slight hollow feeling akin to a hunger pang that wasn’t enough to slow me down… but was enough to get my attention during down-time.

The other shoe boot dropped the morning I moved my wedding ring to my dog-tag chain as a safety precaution for a physical fitness test. As I was moving, clipping snapping and such I paused for a moment, startled by the stark white of a band of skin usually covered from the sunlight – and at that moment a deep but amused voice rumbled from the next bunk:

“It’s still there isn’t it?”

It was Doug Zanders, a cadet from Nebraska and he was smiling as he also moved his wedding band to the chain around his neck.  He continued: “We can take the rings off, but they’re still there.”

As we polished boots that evening Doug and I picked the conversation back up. I talked about Lori and how we’d been married only a couple of months. He blessedly made no ribald comments but instead talked about his distress at Advanced Camp overlapping with the birth of his daughter. It was not the conversation you’d expect from two young warriors and those unlikely sentiments were still in mind as the lights went out and we listened to one last song on the radio before going to sleep:

“I remember standing on the corner at midnight

Trying to get my courage up

There was this long lovely dancer in a little club downtown

I loved to watch her do her stuff”

It was Main Street by Bob Seger and before that night I’d never realized how poignantly Seger captured the essence of something I’d assumed was no longer part of my life:  loneliness. There’d been so many times in younger years when I’d watch couples pair up for the last dance just to walk home alone. Marrying Lori was supposed to change all that and get rid of the loneliness, but it wasn’t until we were apart that I could see that as long as the inner bunker was intact I’d always be “walking home alone” at some level.

“Through the long lonely nights, she filled my sleep

Her body softly swaying to that smoky beat

Down on Main street”

 I laid on my bunk looking up at the rafters and tried to sleep to the lullaby of sniffs, snores, coughs and farts of twenty-three of my closest friends, but with Ted What’s-his-name in the bottom bunk working on his OCD boot-shine sleep was going to remain a stranger.

“And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street”

Seger’s raspy/bluesy vocals overflow with emotion it was Pete Carr’s haunting guitar work that really ripped my heart out. Some artists use a brush but Carr’s work with a guitar paints a vision of sadness and longing more accurate and detailed than an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition. It captured perfectly the gap I felt that night.

I missed Lori –  as in “capital-M” missed her.

Yes, I missed making love1, but I missed her solid reassuring presence just as much and maybe more so. Light-blue water-color eyes with the slight sad tilt that’d been so quick to sign emotional school loans – promising so much despite the possible cost. In the short time we’d been married I’d grown accustomed to the comfort of her arm around my shoulder and her cheek against my chest as we slept.

…and her smile when I first woke up.

The post-training discussions continued –  at the rate Doug and I polished boots over the next thirty-six evenings you’d think we owned stock in Kiwi, but spit-shined boots were secondary to words that were just as important as the daily training. We talked about our wives, wrote operations orders, talked about our younger years, planned artillery pre-plots, talked about our wives again – while  consuming our respective weights in Peanut M & M’s.

…and then before I realized it advanced camp was over, and we went back to our former lives.

My brain is such that a song automatically gets mental time-stamp and is forever connected with what was happening when I first heard the tune: Play ‘Windy” (by The Association) and I’m finishing 8th grade and kissing Kathy Knight at the graduation party. Play “One of These Nights” (by The Eagles) and I’m packing my bags for a reluctant transfer from Skowhegan to Penacook. Play “Main Street” (Bob Seger) and I’m back at FT Lewis gaining skills I’d need as a second lieutenant…and a husband.

 And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street

____________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

1)…and I mean making love. Not banging, boinking, humping, hitting it, making the beast with two backs, getting a bit of crumpet or any of the countless other soulless euphemisms for physical intimacy that we are constantly flooded with in the new millennium.  At that time it was “making love” in every sense of the word.

 

Music: Fire And Rain

Fire and Rain is a song written by James Taylor1 that tells the story of both his reaction to a close friend’s suicide and his own struggles with fame and addiction. It’s a beautiful song in both form and message, so it should be no surprise it’s been covered quite often by performers like Andy Williams, John Denver, Roger Whittaker and Cher. What might be surprising is that one of the earliest versions was recorded by the jazz/rock fusion band Blood, Sweat and Tears.

In the summer of 1970 BS&T was at the height of fame, but their album Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 took a terrible beating by critics for what turned out to be political reasons.2 I didn’t give a rip – I bought the record as soon as I could, which happened to be the same weekend I’d finally got a decent stereo record player – paid for with money I’d earned risking life and limb on pre-OSHA roofing job 75 miles away in Seward. I was so stoked that it took me at most fifteen minutes to get the stereo set up in my attic loft .

Blood. Sweat and Tears 3 was going to be the first record played on it.

I had loved the previous album and the anticipation had me so fumble-fingered that it took me three attempts to get the disc on the spindle. When I finally got the record cued up I sat back with my eyes closed anticipating musical genius, but forty-five seconds into Hi-Dee-Ho I sat back up with a “What the hell?. I kept listening, mollified by the second track which was an excellent (as expected) Steve Katz tune called The Battle but after enduring Lucretia MacEvil and Lucretia’s Reprise I was seconds away from using the disc for skeet shooting.

In my agitation I almost missed the opening notes to Fire & Rain ( instead of a distinct stop/start, Lucretia’s Reprise slowly morphed into the following track) but as I heard David Clayton-Thomas’s uncharacterically soft opening vocals I became intrigued and started putting the shot-shells back in the box.

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.

Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.

I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,

I just can’t remember who to send it to.

Rather than his usual brash, bluesy sound Clayton-Thomas’ voice is calm and thoughtful through the first verse. The accompanying piano is also subdued, as you’d expect when dealing with the shock of losing someone close, especially a young person who took a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, you’ve got to help me make a stand.

You’ve just got to see me through another day.

My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.

At the beginning of the second verse the soft piano and languid guitar is replaced by a brass fanfare. It’s confusing; while the lyrics resemble a prayer, the combined effect of lyrics, vocal inflection and instruments do not come across as supplication.  I have often been taken to task over my non-traditional mode of prayer, so I can understand that rather insistent tone to the message, but there is also a humanistic hint of the individual steps in the grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining and so on.

Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.

Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

Here my thinking becomes less verbal and much more emotional and I find it difficult to separate myself from the vocalist. Coping with death is never easy and with so many recent deaths among my circle the question of mortality becomes overwhelming. The mental images of the sun and the wind conjure up a personal Jungian archetype that allows me to escape:

… the eighteen-year old David hitchhiking.

It’s a familiar and comfortable vision:

  • The welcome ache in my legs from walking
  • The wind in my too-long-for-Dad’s-taste hair.
  • The warm sunlight taking the edge off the cold wind
  • The excitement from the uncertainty – the hint of danger.
  • The freedom & endless possibilities – I could end up in Seattle! New York! Ninilchik!

In those pre-Walkman days long walks gave me plenty of opportunity to think and at that pivotal time in my life I would contemplate life just as much as I’d contemplate how I liked Debbie’s brown satin vest & miniskirt outfit. That’s why I still love this song now – not because of the outfit, but because it prompts contemplation.

As the song begins to fade the music changes:

Thought I’d see you one more time again.

There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now.

Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you, fire and rain, now.

The brass section repeats the fanfare while the guitar work becomes more improvisational as maracas softly keep time to the music. The combined sounds invoke a bittersweet/wistful mood. Touches like this are what make me prefer this version of the song – the arrangement is flawless, and the music contributes as much to the narrative as the lyrics.

….and those maracas? If you really listen they sound like the tread of a young man’s boots as he walks along the highway.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. It was a double-barreled hit for Mr. Taylor, released in early 1970 as both a Top 40 single and as a track on his Sweet Baby James album…though I didn’t find any of this out until I was in college a year-and-a-half later

 

  1. Canadian David Clayton-Thomas was having difficulty obtaining a visa to stay in the country and continue recording/performing with the band. His application was “expedited” on the condition that the band would participate in a state-sponsored goodwill tour behind the Iron Curtain.

Music: ” (Once Upon a Time) In Your Wildest Dreams”

 

There is a rare disease that afflicts anyone living near a theme park like Six Flags or Dollywood. It’s a painful ringing echo in your ears that comes from the endless repetition of radio advertisements for the park’s signature ride, usually a mammoth roller-coaster with a name like Avalanche, King Cobra or Hurtinator. In 1986 the signature ride for Utah’s Lagoon theme park was the Colossus rollercoaster and its radio spot was in heavy, heavy rotation on every AM and FM station along the Wasatch front. However, that commercial flood didn’t bother me much – in the spring of 1986 our life in general had become one big existential roller-coaster full of ups and downs in our income, health and quality of life.

The peaks included:

  • My career was really starting to take off. I was winning awards and making a regular income and as far as we could tell that trend would continue.
  • We moved into a larger/nicer home with the best studio space I’ve ever had.
  • I was able to fly home to Alaska for a visit to see my sister Robin graduate from college.

…while some of the valleys were:

  • Our car was broken into, resulting in a smashed window and stolen tape deck.
  • Lori suffered a miscarriage with serious complications.
  • I developed major back problems – severe pain,  spasms and lack of mobility.

At first, I assumed I’d just aggravated an old back injury1, but the pain grew daily until I woke up one Saturday morning unable to move. I dutifully put on the “captain face”, told jokes to the boys and made light of the situation but that schtick soon wore thin. A late-night phone call from  Mom2 just made the situation worse; she hinted at a grim, possibly fatal prognosis but refused to answer specific questions as she wasn’t “attending” (physically present).

The pain was unbearable, and I distinctly recall lying in bed expecting to go to sleep and never wake up again. Oddly enough that finality didn’t bother me as much as the physical pain; it may have been just the painkillers talking but I wasn’t worried about a Last Judgement – I was just sad at the thought of separation from Lori and not being around to raise my sons to adulthood.

As I started to drift off I felt more resigned than scared and was almost asleep when a song came on the radio that caught my attention. It was a simple synthesizer melody that slowly grew into a lush sound with symphonic backing to which an understated syncopated percussion joined in after a few measures. That soft cadence was in turn followed by a bass guitar – and at that point the combination of sounds was creating a slightly familiar but frustratingly unidentifiable sound…unidentifiable until the vocalist started singing and the last Lego snapped in place:

Once upon a time

Once when you were mine

I remember skies

Reflected in your eyes

It was Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, a progressive rock band that I’d been a devoted fan for decades…and when I say fan I mean dyed-in-the-wool DNA fan maintaining a complete set of their albums through two sets of vinyl and one set of cassette tapes.

(Note: We Moody blues fans are a snooty, opinionated lot comprised of three distinct camps divided by the group’s three incarnations:

1)    1964-1966: The original group featuring Denny Laine as lead vocalist, and doing mostly covers of American pop and R&B

2)    1967–1972: The “Core Seven” years when the band reigned as the premiere art progressive rock band producing one of the first concept albums “Days of Future Past”3

3)    1977-present: Now a Soft rock group recording synth-pop tunes like In Your Wildest Dreams – the tune that was currently playing)

As a staunch member of Group 2 I normally would have passed on a recent release like the song I was now hearing but for some reason I kept listening.

I wonder where you are

I wonder if you think about me

Once upon a time

In your wildest dreams

 It could have been nostalgia that kept me listening – at thirty-three you’ve lived just long enough to have something to look back at. Earlier in the summer we’d run into my former Best Friend and her family4 and since that time I’d been thinking more often about my time in Fairbanks (coincidentally the time of my peak interest in progressive rock) which brought me back to:

 Once the world was new

Our bodies felt the morning dew

That greets the brand-new day

We couldn’t tear ourselves away

I wonder if you care

I wonder if you still remember

Once upon a time

 It could have been the character of the group and their music in general. I always thought that the Moody Blues music was “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge/ truth that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

 And when the music plays

And when the words are touched with sorrow

When the music plays

And when the music plays

I hear the sound I had to follow

Once upon a time

In typical music industry fashion, the song faded out to an unheard conclusion, but it kept running through my mind for the rest of the evening. In my opinion it wasn’t even close to the quality of “The Story in Your Eyes”, “Question” or just about anything else they recorded during the Core-Seven years, but it did have a nice, reassuring feel, as if a good friend had stopped by to tell me that everything is going to be OK, mate!” That’s when I sat up in bed and realized that all the morbid thoughts I had earlier that day were gone, displaced by that new Moody Blues song and thoughts generated by it, proving again the “stealth scripture” aspect of music produced by Mr. Hayward and company.6

I wish I could say that after listening to “In Your Wildest Dreams” everything was OK and that I made a speedy recovery…but I can’t. I went through another 9 weeks of misery before the pain began to subside and while the condition5 causing the discomfort went into remission it returned with a vengeance fifteen years later and has continued unrelieved to this day.

However –  I did get to raise my sons (and a beautiful daughter) to adulthood and my beautiful Saxon Princess is still by my side. I’ve continued to create images with both paint, paper, wax and words.

…. and I am still listening to the Moody Blues.

 

 ______________________________________________________________________________________

 Notes:

1)    See 1985: Fighting Soldiers from The Sky

2)    A registered nurse

3)    For years we were told that the album was the product of collaborative magic between the Moody Blues and the London Festival Orchestra. The real story is a bit more pedestrian and starts with the group working off a hefty advance from DERAM Records…

4)    Including a spouse who bore an unnerving resemblance to the husband in the song’s official music video.

5)    Ankylosing Spondylitis: An autoimmune disease involving pain and inflammation along the vertebrae – a condition much like rheumatoid arthritis and connected in no way whatsoever to ankylosaur or any other type of large lizard.

6)    The fact that it was the Moody Blues singing the song was significant as well – I doubt I’d have listened as intently to any other musician(s) with the same intensity.

Music: Reassuring Voices

Consider the topic of tastes and most people think sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The Japanese add one more category called umami which literally translates as “delicious” but is often interpreted to mean savory. I’ve always thought of umami more as of a mellow happy almost-after taste, the kind of flavor that comes with a piece of provolone cheese on an onion bagel, preferably washed down with hot (dark) cocoa the way it was served in Milan, Italy.

There is a group of vocalists that for me sound the way umami tastes – mellow, happy and unobtrusive.  I call them the Reassuring Voices: Musicians/vocalists with a pure tenor that can be aural Xanax for me. I’m not sure why but the sound of their voices just seems …well, reassuring. When I listen to them I am wrapped with the feeling that even if my life currently feels like a train wreck in slow motion everything is going to work out/everything is going to be OK.

The musicians attached to these wonderful vocals are

 

James Taylor: Unlike others on this list, Taylor’s work has been influential to me over most of my adult life and not just one phase. In particular his work has been the background music for three very pivotal times in my life:

  • Mud Slide Slim – University of Alaska
  • In the Pocket – Fall of 1976 when I was courting my beautiful Saxon Princess, Lori
  • Never Die Young – 1987-89 when my young family and I were “house-sitters” at my parent’s home in Sterling, Alaska

 

 

Paul McCartney: Choosing both Rubber Soul and Ram as favorites can be expected but I get mixed response when I tell people I love the soundtrack to Give My Regards to Broad Street.  It was the background music for that time in my career when I realized I was going to survive as an illustrator and that our next address wouldn’t be “221B I-15 Underpass” It was like having a childhood friend say “Hey, you’re going to make it mate!”

 

 

Sting: If “reassuring voices” are like provolone on an onion bagel, Sting has some Dijon mustard added on the top – just a tad bit edgier. The Dream of the Blue Turtle, Nothing Like the Sun and to a lesser extent Soul Cages and Ten Summoner’s Tales were the soundtrack to the “Elvis Years” of 1985 to 1991 when my cover illustrations appeared in gaming & hobby shops all over the world and I was so busy I had to farm out work to friends. It was also when I first started considering my mortality; I still looked good, but I could no longer do sixty pushups in 2:00 or run two miles in 14:15.

Lance Nelson: You can stop scratching your head because no, you probably haven’t heard of him. Lance is a consummate musician and (as John Lennon said of Paul McCartney) “a truly inspired bass player”.  He’s also one of my best friends. He set his musical aspirations aside for a season to pursue a distinguished career as an assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska, but he’s resumed his music and I expect wonderful results.

I date my appreciation for his soothing tenor to a specific event in the late winter of 1972 while I was at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks). It was not a good time for me – one of the rare unhappy periods during my time at UA, mainly because of the following:

  • I was flunking Algebra II and World History.
  • I’d been propositioned by my history teacher – my “attentions” for a passing grade.
  • The other residents in my dorm floor thought I was a narc.

My Best Friend and I spent one evening listening to Lance and his girlfriend play through a selection of songs and when they got to Teach Your Children I just lost it. His high tenor melody against her alto harmony was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard and feeling of elemental peace draped over me like a quilt on a cold night.

All these voices are just as reassuring to me now. That issue of mortality that troubled me in the late 80s figures even more prominently now – and I must wonder if I have a pull-date stamped on my fourth-point-of-contact. On days that I can’t walk very well, or it seems like I am chained to a nebulizer, popping “In the Pocket” into my CD player brings a lot of comfort.

…and for the record, I wasn’t a narc, I just didn’t smoke weed.  I also did not take up on my history teacher’s proposition; I thanked him for the compliment, told him I was dead butch and took the F.

Music: Doobie Brothers “South City Midnight Lady”

 

During the heyday of 33rpm records – the 1970’s-  there were a few albums that could be found in every collection you encountered. They weren’t always Grammy winners or even particularly good, but they showed up everywhere. Some examples are:

  • Other Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
  • Rumors by Fleetwood Mac
  • Saturday Night Fever soundtrack

The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers enjoyed that status for most of 1973. It contained a couple of well-played singles like “Long Train Running” and “China Grove” but the music worked best when it was played in sequence, though it wasn’t really a concept album like Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul. The hits were great, but my favorite was the second track on the B side: “South City Midnight Lady”  a mellow ballad and a marked contrast to “Without You” which preceded it. It was penned and performed by Patrick Simmons, the only member of the band in all its incarnations:

South city midnight lady I’m much obliged indeed You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need I thought there was no reason For all these things I do But the smile that I sent out returned with you


I love two separate passages in that song: The break, which features a beautiful guitar solo backed with strings, and the last couple of measures that lead into the fade-out, which again features beautiful guitar work, but laid over the backing track of an ARP synthesizer.

When I returned home in the early summer of 1973 I found that my job at Swanson River had fallen through…and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find work until three weeks before going back to school. I spent most of my summer working on plastic models1, watching television2 and binge-listening to The Captain and Me. I spent so much time listening to it on the stereo that it began to run through my brain all the time – like a Walkman without the earbuds.

There was one other thing that occupied my time: making a long-distance reconciliation with my Best Friend after our break-up the previous spring. She was back up in Fairbanks and while we’d been regularly writing and calling the discussions had hit a plateau. As was the case when I totaled the Maverick 3, it was at this point when I was in trouble that my Dad made a connection with me and showed himself to be an incredibly caring and sensitive man.

We were on vacation camping on the banks of the Little Susitna river in the same place we’d camped in 1970. There was one big difference this time?  The Parks Highway had been completed and it was possible to drive all the way to Fairbanks. Dad must have noticed the times I’d wistfully look north because after we’d packed up and got in the Microbus, Dad turned around and said “You know, we haven’t been to Fairbanks since 1967. Let’s drive on up!”

I would have never thought he’d piece together the reality of my broken heart and without saying a word administered the best medicine. Later, that day we reached Fairbanks and 30 minutes later I had found and made up with my Best Friend and for a short season everything was OK.

Because that mental stereo had been playing The Captain and Me I will forever connect it with that trip. I have one special mental snapshot of us driving along the highway next to Denali (then Mount McKinley) with the closing instrumental to “South City Midnight Lady” playing in my head. I can close my eyes; my family is put-put-putting along under the mid-summer Alaskan night sky painted with magenta and orange. Patrick Simmons plays a slow crescendo on the synthesizer and it’s all good.

__________________________________________________________________________________

 

  1. A 1/25 scale kit of a German Tiger Tank by Tamiya. It has a complete interior and the tracks were made of individual polyethylene segments that had to be snapped together.

It took almost an entire month.

  1. Mostly Watergate hearings and on-going discussion of the passage of Roe vs. Wade the previous winter.

 

  1. See 1969: Blue Paint and Dry Pavement

Music: Who’s Next

 

 

The way we listen to popular music has been changed in a major way by technology. The first long format (33rpm) record albums I listened to were collections of singles arranged in no particular order.  It wasn’t until the Rubber Soul / Pet Sounds / Sgt. Peppers volleyball match between the Beatles and the Beach Boys that we started to see cohesive themes in record albums, a trend that continued until we got album-length full blown rock operas such as Tommy by the Who.

Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon continued that concept with subsequent album Quadrophenia, but I think they also unconsciously followed that format with other albums as well. Case in point: Who’s Next, which was originally pasted together from the bits and pieces of an abandoned rock opera entitled Lifehouse. In my interpretation the songs on side A have a theme: the life-cycle of a young adult romantic relationship.

Before I continue please note the following:

  • I don’t always play close attention to the lyrics; to my ears the vocals quite often become another instrument blending and harmonizing with the guitars, keyboards and other music-making devices.
  • Yes, there are stand-out tunes on Side B such as “Behind Blue Eyes” but when Who’s Next was first released I listened to music on a record player; if I really liked one side the flip side didn’t get much play and in this case I really, really, really liked Side A.

The songs:

  1. Baba O’Reilly opens with an oscillating backing track played on an organ set to a marimba beat, then quickly goes into triumphant measured notes played on a piano with the loud pedal pushed all the way to the floor. At that point Roger Daltrey opens up with “OUT HERE IN THE FIELD…” and even at age 64 I am up on my feet with right fist in the air and eighteen again! This is the soundtrack to the couple’s first meeting when Stukas start dive-bombing in your stomach until the day you find out she’s as interested in you as you are in her – a development also worth a right fist thrust in the air.

 

  1. Bargain is deeper and a bit murky. You’ve fallen in love but there’s no firm commitment yet. You love her but there might be some parental disapproval or friends who aren’t overly fond of her or the way she’s monopolizing your time. You weigh how much she means to you – calculate the bargain – against what you’ll have to give up.

          “I sit lookin’ round I see my face in the mirror

           I look at my face in the mirror

          I know I’m worth nothing, without you

          And like one and one don’t make two

         One and one make one…”

 

  1. Love Ain’t for Keeping: the relationship has been going on for awhile and has become routine. You’re both comfortable but the Stukas are no longer conducting close air support on your innards.

 

  1. My Wife: You’ve been together for a while, but the flame is flickering, and you start to take each other for granted. One or both of you develop a roaming eye and the specter of cheating perches over the relationship.

 

  1. The Song is Over: The break-up. You’re no longer together …but your heart still skips a beat when you see her on street.1

 

Is this interpretation autobiographical? In the case of girlfriends of my youth most definitely. Fortunately, I eventually lucked into finding my beautiful Saxon Princess and 40 years later we’ve still never gotten to numbers 4 and 5.

I love music like this, but while not completely moribund, the concept album has been pushed aside in favor of singles-as-MP3 files and downloading. Personal playlists on MP3 players or smart phones   could embody a cohesive message like that I found in Side A of Who’s Next, but I wonder if we’ll ever again be presented by similar concept albums.

I kind of doubt it.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Carly Simon presents her interpretation of a break-up in Darkness ‘Til Dawn on her 1976 release Another Passenger. I wish all my young break-ups had the closure that Ms. Simon sings about but in my case (with my freakishly sharp mutant memory) it has always been The Song is Over version:

        The song is over

        I’m left with only tears

        I must remember

        Even if it takes a million years….

 

 

Music: Suitable for Framing

“How can people be so heartless

How can people be so cruel

Easy to be hard

Easy to be cold”

As I sat listening to Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night sing all I could think was that the lyrics hit the nail on the head. People could be so cold to each other that I was feeling particularly chilled at the moment. Football was over and while I had an occasional part-time job and responsibilities as a teacher’s aide in a P.E. class I was bored. It was the first time I encountered one of the most basic troop leading principles: Morale is the lowest when duty is the lightest.

Side B kept playing:

“I know the guys cook hold all the lift

In my harp hoe dad

If I cool Paul cross my knee

I know do my cough it up”1

Cory Wells was admittedly the coolest of the three vocalists in the group but he was also the most inarticulate. A loaded pistol held to my head could not have motivated me to decipher the lyrics to “Ain’t That a Lotta Love” but it was still a catchy tune. The remaining  B side songs were equally good, especially the percussion-heavy King Solomon’s Mines which would earn me the broomstick-thumping-the-ceiling routine from Mom in the kitchen below when I’d thump and jump along with the beat.

I picked up Suitable for Framing a year after its release, and even then, it was an example of retail therapy rather than interest. I was pleasantly surprised and put the album on heavy rotation on my record player where it became the soundtrack for October 1970, which was basically a four-week ramp-up to Halloween- which in Alaska is the schizophrenia of holidays. You’re well on the way toward the winter solstice so it gets real dark but there isn’t a lot of snow which means very little moon or starlight is reflected to create the north country “white nights”. It got even darker during cloudy weather and in 1970 Halloween would have a new moon. Driving that night would be like driving around in a cow’s stomach.

 “Lady Samantha flies like a lakka”

over the still and anna no lawn lakka

The rest of Side A wasn’t much better, and I had been expecting better out of Chuck Negron. At least I got a good snicker at “Eli’s Coming” – hide your (expletive deleted) girl!”

The retail therapy session had been spawned by a disastrous date to homecoming which brought an end to a romance with the life span of a fruit fly.  There had been a just-as-brief rebound relationship, so my Halloween plans were definitely of the stag variety. It was just as well – my trusty steed for the night would be my family’s “other car” – a red 1963 Chevy Bel-air station wagon which was definitely not going to make me a babe-magnet. In response to the countless stories of pranks played in Halloweens past .2 I went prepared with firecrackers and eggs. Unfortunately, I was travelling light:  One small packet of Black Cats and four eggs .3

I stopped at the KAMBE theater and ran into Miss Rebound in the lobby, patently bored as well, and more than willing to ride along with me to engage in some Halloween mischief over in the mall parking lot. Unfortunately, reality rapidly elbowed its way into the equation when the following happened in quick succession:

  • As the mall parking lot was really icy I had to pay more attention to my driving and not so much on the pranks.
  • I’d forgotten to bring matches to light the Black Cats and discovered that using a car’s cigarette lighter was problematic at best.
  • I was driving with my window open and an egg ready in my right hand when a car pulled out and I had to downshift4 . Without even thinking I reached up and grabbed the lever in my right hand, the one holding the egg.

 

“Just the thought of losing you is more than I can take

Circle for a landing before it’s too late

Circle for a landing, get your feet back on the ground

Circle for a landing, it’s time to come on down”

I immediately pulled over by the side entrance to the parking lot where

  • I learned how hard it was to clean raw egg out of a car interior with clumps of snow.
  • Miss Rebound decided to part company for greener pastures and unbroken eggs.
  • the Lombard family (friends of my parents) slowly drove by as I was cleaning up.

 

I shook it off –  there were several red Bel-Air station wagons in the Central Peninsula area, so I hadn’t necessarily been busted. It wasn’t till I got out of the car at home that I remembered that Dad had recently swapped out a crumpled front driver’s side fender with a bluish green replacement from the junkyard…  For once Lady Luck smiled on me – the Lombard’s had been bickering about something and completely missed me and my instantly identifiable ride.

The next day was ironically All Saints Day, and the afternoon following church was one long sigh of relief as I played Suitable for Framing one more time. I smiled when the record ended with “Celebrate” on the B side – I loved my nephew Erik’s personal interpretation of the lyrics (“Seven-eight! Seven-eight! Ants doody music!”) but I was also pretty pleased that I suffered no more than an egg-splattered parka for my efforts the previous night.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­___________________________________________________________________ _

1. Actual lyrics:    I know the desert can’t hold all the love   

                                    That I feel in my heart for ya    

                                    If I could spell it out across the sea,               

                                    I know my love would cover it up

2. The very best story revolved around the Kenai Drug Store building. The owner’s son and his buddies climbed on top of the roof and hid behind a large sign. They’d come out, throw some eggs then scoot back behind it to hide when angry drivers came looking for them.

3. Mom was amateur nutritionist and kept careful track of all the food in the house. I think she actually put serial numbers on all the eggs…

4. They’re rarely seen anymore, but a 1963 Chevy Bel-Aire was equipped with a three-speed transmission with the gear selector mounted on the steering column behind the wheel, with the selector lever on the right-hand side: Often referred to as a “three on the tree”.

Music: Spill the Wine

I love music. I surround myself with music all the time – unless I am in an obvious non-musical situation like teaching a class or sitting in a funeral service I have my earbuds in and my Walkman jamming. You’d think that with all that love and interest I would be a competent guitarist or pianist but that unfortunately is not the case. As progressive as my parents were they still have some very firm conviction regarding gender roles, and music was definitely not something for boys. I could sing in church and be part of the high school chorus but there was no money in the budget for lessons or instruments for yours truly.

I bear no grudge over that issue. Both my parents were dealt a tough hand of cards in the game of life and they played them very well. I am a competent vocalist and was a passable journeyman bagpiper until my asthma put a stop to that. Now I play with the pennywhistle but as Lori says the instrument I play best is the stereo.1 I’m good at selecting and organizing music and can set a perfect mood for a particular time, situation or occasion. Granted I do have specific tastes in music, so I’d never make a good DJ, but I can pick the right song for the right time.

My freakishly sharp memory also means that I remember when a particular song was popular and what was going on my life and the world at that time…though there is one condition I have to apply to that claim. Back in the day before digital formats and downloads music moved at the pace of the mail. Record companies would send songs out on 45 rpm demo records, usually at the slower but more economical 4th class rate.2 . That meant  music got to different areas of the country at different times so Alaskans got new releases anywhere from a month to six weeks after most of the lower 48 . For example, KENI 550AM started playing “Cherish” by the Association in late September of 1966 but an erstwhile suitor in California sent a copy to my older sister Robin in late August.

…all of which means that sometimes the memory I have of times connected with the debut of a specific song may vary a bit from the official Billboard date.

“Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & WAR will always be the archetypical midsummer 1970 song, first heard during a camping trip on the banks of the Little Susitna River before the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks was completed. I had been following Mr. Burdon’s vocals since he arrived with the Animals in the second wave of the British Invasion five years earlier – I liked “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” but it wasn’t until the band became Eric Burdon & The Animals that I found some real favorites. “Help Me Girl” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” are particular favorites but to most listeners “San Francisco Nights” and ‘When I Was Young” are the real gems of that period.

During an early interview Burdon was asked if the Animals played an English version of soul music to which he replied that they played an “Animals type of soul”. Between that comment and his deep, powerful bluesy voice it was obvious that R&B was the direction he was headed and when he ended up fronting the funk rock band WAR it seemed to be a good fit.

“Spill the Wine” was their first single and was inspired by someone actually spilling wine on a studio mixing board. It was long (4:51) for a Top 40 release and a bit surreal with a woman speaking Spanish in the background and a syncopated flute solo floating over the top of a rhythmic funk. Until the advent of the Internet I was totally baffled by the lyrics, which seemed as if someone mashed together summer landscapes, Hollywood productions, Scandinavian mythology, cheap muscatel and lots of girls. Lots and lots of girls. At seventeen it hurt my brain to think too deeply about symbolism so I focused mostly the parts about sunshine and lots of girls.

It was a nice laid-back song for dancing but that didn’t happen very often. Most of the dances I went to at that time featured live bands and none of them had the depth and variety of instruments to do “Spill the Wine” with justice. It did pop up at sock-hops with record players and was usually a hit – I have many pleasant memories of dreamily dancing to its low-key but definitely funk-driven beat. While it wasn’t a mega-favorite for me like songs in the  progressive rock (Moody Blues) or guitar/vocal harmony (CSN&Y)3  categories it is a bedrock selection of every 1970 playlist I’ve ever compiled and still brings on a very relaxed and happy state of mind.

 


 

  1. Or given our changing times: CD Player, MP3 player or streaming music files
  2. Now called media mail.
  3. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

 

Off-World Dragoon

2018-04-01 MillerDragoonNo, that isn’t a typo – I meant to “dragoon” instead of “dragon”.

Dragoon is a dated term for a mounted infantryman – a soldier who rides to battle but dismounts to fight. During the 19th century  the term was slowly changed to refer to any kind of horse-bound solider, a trend that was spurred* on by economy. Per man true cavalrymen cost the Crown more so by calling them dragoons the Horse Guards could get away with paying a lower rate to regimental commanders.

All of which comes perilously close to the wilderness of Non Sequitur…

One of my on-going projects is a group of generic troop figures  Marc Miller is going to be using in an up-coming project – and by definition they are not too terribly exciting so I render them on 8 1/2″ X 11″ paper. Every now and then I luck into something that a) is a little more interesting and b) usable for a book project of my own. I produce those images  in a larger (11″X17″) more detail-friendly format.  That was the case with this drawing.

Drawn with Pigma Micron felt-tip pens of varying weights. I usually come back in with Prismacolor markers but it’s nice sometime to see just the line work  for the same reason I like dimensional work in one color: it lets me soak in the detail.


  • yes, I know. Terrible, terrible pun.