Righteous riffs

First Cuts ….

In the sobering light of the new year, we’ve forced ourselves to begin reckoning with our clutter. Less a resolution than a survival tactic, more akin to scooping water from a sinking ship. 

I refer to it as ‘editing.’ 

This makes Karry angry. 

We’re throwing shit out, she informs me. 

To equip you with the appropriate measure of tension in the present exercise, picture me chaining myself to a tree while Karry, in hardhat and chomping a cigar, is revving a bulldozer, committed to getting a good parking spot at happy hour.

After building confidence with my sock drawer (the sock drawer of a man who should have more than two feet), I was assigned a neglected set of shelves in our laundry room. Behind jars of canned tomato sauce and a crate of all the crayons accumulated over my children’s lifetime (an obscene number), I stumbled upon shoeboxes and cases containing old audio cassettes. 

My teenage and early 20-something music library.

I lift the lid on a shoebox like John Travolta opening that case in Pulp Fiction. 

There’s my older brother. My Dad. 

Ha, my college girlfriend. 

My altar egos. My heart. What used to pass for my confidence.

I heard a feint whisper, “Rest here awhile.” 

At least that’s what I think it said. Was kinda’ hard to hear over the bulldozer upstairs.

In any case the ensuing editing was going to be slightly more nuanced than my sock drawer.

Speaking of cases, close your eyes and listen. 

Remove. Insert. Press Play. 

Rewind. Fast-forward. Flip. Eject. Remove. Replace. 

The hard-plastic hands-on ritual. The tangible tethering between you and the experience.

I used to commandeer the back room, listen for hours. Gather with friends around their family’s hi-fi system like a campfire. Still remember the time Jeff Hughes hopped on top of his dining room table to air guitar to Ratt’s Round and Round. Can still hear his Mom’s voice instantly drowning out Stephen Pearcy’s with a rafter-rattling, “Jeffrey!” 

Pretty much until middle school, music was a purely stationary exercise. You in proximity to the console, headphone jack if privacy was required (i.e. whenever I raided my brother’s Steve Martin albums, eventually committing each and every bit to memory. ). 

Until that one summer afternoon shooting hoops at Areford Playground, when JonJon McCoy announced his presence from afar, appearing at the top of Garard Avenue, gratuitously sized boom box perched atop his shoulder, gloriously blasting Mr. Roboto from the new Styx album.

He was the modern man. 

For context, JonJon was not the tallest in our village, and he lived on Carnation Street, which was a three-block straight hill climb to the playground. Coupling his diminutive size with the enormity of his ‘portable,’ he was proportionally half-man, half-blaster.  I imagine he had to shift shoulders multiple times en route. Upon arrival on the court, he set the radio down behind the basketball pole, a conquerer from a far off land planting his flag, and proceeded to ball out (his game had sauce). 

Domo arigato. 

___

So much of the experience was born of expectation. 

Waiting for Friday night and a pilgrimage to the National Record Mart. If you were lucky, enough in your pocket for one good one. Heat-seeking the selections on sale for $5.99, weighing whether a $7.99 or, gulp, a $9.99 was worth the risk. 

What risk? In the days when music was doled out by the machine with an eye dropper, usually the one song they played on the radio was your only clue. Got burned often enough to make the cassingle, the cassette-ization of the classic 45 record (A and B sides), a safer, though lamer, surgical strike (I never grew tired of rewinding Real, Real Gone by Van Morrison or Every Time I Roll the Dice by Delbert McClinton). Spending precious dollars on musical roulette is also why so many of our early collections were stuffed with greatest hits. More bang for the buck. Who didn’t have the Eagles, Skynyrd, Steve Miller, the Beatles, Stones (Hot Rocks)? Homogenized like so much of our diets growing up.  

At times, though, the decision was made prior to arrival. Word of mouth was immutable law in junior high. I don’t remember a thing about a particular middle school dance, only that we gathered at Jerry Rehanek’s house first, where he played the new Quiet Riot before we walked up the hill to the school. We were all banging our heads by week’s end. And I still contend that Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry was the best $5.99 (on sale, yes!) I’ve ever spent in my life.

The cover alone made unwitting art collectors of teenage boys.

The final confirmation, though, came when you stepped to the counter to hand your money over to Bill, the big, bearded, long-haired, dark-glasses-wearing manager, whose approval we courted and counted as much as our teachers’.

As I type this I can summon any song I want without lifting a finger. 

Meant a whole lot more when you had to wait for Friday night, make your one choice count, and big Bill affirmed your selection.   

Real, real gone.

___

True music liberation came with our driver’s licenses. 

Or in my case, my friends’ driver’s licenses, as our family’s 1980 Mercury Monarch was equipped with only an a.m. radio. 

That a.m. radio was tuned to the cosmos, though. After picking up my rented tux for the prom, I was sitting at Five Corners waiting for the light to change when “Everybody Plays the Fool” came on (sigh). And when the Monarch finally died in front of our house, I sat, sad, in its front bench seat and tried unsuccessfully to turn it over one last time. I gave the radio dial one last twist, and it played, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” by the Beach Boys. 

Truth be told I wouldn’t have loved that car any more had it had an enviable cassette deck. 

The absence of one added more novelty to riding with friends. 

I first experienced Dave Brubek’s Blue Rondo A La Turk riding cramped in the backseat of Lenny Baron’s VW Rabbit. Take 5 made driving familiar streets feel like discovering a new planet. 

So much of my friends’ music just sounded better on cassette over noisy engines and piped through thin car audio systems with the heater full blast in the middle of winter. Exhibit A – The Violent Femmes. 

I forget what 8 was for.

___

When music became portable, and (cue angel chorus) recordable, everything changed, as evidenced by the time capsule in front of me.

Run DMC’s eponymous first album, courtesy of Jeff Hughes’ dual-cassette deck. 

No better baptism for one’s boom box than Reverend Run. 

Your weekly $5.99 suddenly stretched a heckuva lot further (‘ … spreadin’ … just like the flu….’). 

A lot more of your allowance went into Scotch, Maxell, TDK, Memorex. Your portfolio diversified exponentially. More shoeboxes required to collect your treasure. 

Still, you remained so tethered to the experience. Who remembers sitting with your finger ready on the record button waiting for the radio to play that song? Who is now not smiling at that recollection? Shoot, I remember calling into Jesse Thurman’s radio show in college and snatching “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” on request. 

It was the teenage equivalent of calling in a prescription to your pharmacist. 

___

And when She was really going out with Me, the tectonic plates of sonic existence shifted once again. 

Um, I’d forgotten how hard I mix-taped. 

Hard not to laugh now — a lot of extra cheese sandwiched between those playlists. Some questionable choices, yes, but not a single regret (which is how I choose to remember my college years). I’m not sure I took anything more seriously in my life at that time. When ceding your heart to surrogates, you not only agonized over each selection, but their precise sequencing. The whole experience such a sweet meditation. 

Love letters to a much smaller and simpler world. 

Poring over the fossils I note we had friends play a couple of those songs live at our wedding. After all they were our soundtrack.

Ha, and staring back at me now — the last mix-tape I ever made her. 

Last played April 3, 2001. 

I’d forgotten that the birthing suites at St. Clair Hospital had some bitchin’ retro sound systems back in a day. 

If memory serves our firstborn came into the world to the strains of Running on Faith by Clapton.

“… what else can a poor boy do?” 

Cue the closing credits of our couplehood. 

___

As I wade into the task at hand, I feel for the fine line between careful Editing and the blunt force trauma of Throwing Shit Out. 

I text a couple friends who share similar relationships — with music and with gracious wives whose patience, um, occasionally wears thin. 

I ask them what they ever did with their old cassettes. 

Andy: I still have a bunch of them here. 

Doug: I’m embarrassed to say I still have most of them. They’re stored in various places around the house — the basement, under my bed, etc.

I ponder Doug’s squirrel method for a moment, then quickly realize I’d probably end up having to ask him if there’s enough room in his basement for me and my collection.

So I end up making two piles, the larger one honoring the task at hand, and the request of the girl who I now drive mad, but who once drove me to make mix tape after mix tape. I say goodbye to casual acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in decades. Thank them for keeping me such good company when I needed them, for helping me process, escape, remember, hope. So good to catch up. I snapped pix of a couple I may want to look up again somewhere down the road.  

The second pile I neatly consolidated amongst the shoe boxes. Will make room in some attic corner.

Because I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK for us to leave bread crumbs. 

So we can find our way back to the campfires of our youth… 

… for when there just aren’t enough adult socks in the sock drawer to keep us warm. 

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Fathers and Sons, Righteous riffs

Wing Man

He’s always the initiator, as I’m reluctant to impose on the 20-year-old’s social calendar. 

Over Friday lunch he asks … “Drover’s tomorrow night?”

Me: You work? 

He: ‘Till seven. 

Me: (calculating drive-time) Might make us a little late. Proly crowded on a Saturday night. 

He: I could see if I could move my shift up an hour. Leave at six? 

Me: You can do that? 

He: I can ask. 

Me: I’m game. Just let me know. 

For the uninitiated, Drover’s is a most sacred place. 

The one constant on our family’s annual summer to-do list — its bona fides spoken of in unequivocal and reverent tones. 

Best Wings on the planet.

There is no debate. There is Drover’s. And there is everyone else.  

Consistently fried to crispy perfection. Every time. Never under- or overdone.  Sauces sublime.

 And part of a larger ritual born of, and bursting with, expectation. 

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Righteous riffs

Just another Saturday morning ….

Karry catches the rising sun spotlighting the frost on the trees, says I’d appreciate, implying more than her, she hates all of winter … but as the sun continues to rise, she thaws, and is broken by its beauty, how the backlit frost glows, how the trees just glisten, like the sun has cast the morning in moonlight, and for an unspoiled moment we just stand awed in our old kitchen and stare at an older sun we’ve never seen before kissing the backs of the bare trees good morning.

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Righteous riffs

No Great Hurry, Not Soon Enough (a meditation)

In my imagination, this is where we are tonight ….

Walking into Potter’s, glancing left and finding enough open, old, red stools at the bar to accommodate us (whoever’s available, whoever wants to come), their acquisition by our keisters a confirmation, the most formal, capital “A” Arrival I can think of right now, the granting of official permission to leave everything else outside for Here … Now … the simple This.

In my imagination Robert, the forever bartender, towel over his shoulder, who spent contented decades pouring and washing, fills our glasses full of Pabst — all that our thirst has required here since 21.

Yes, we make a point to clink each other’s glasses. There may be toasts, but everything that has ever needed said is whispered in full measure by just our being together.

There is no clock on the wall.

If we’re lucky an old regular may shuffle in on cue to check the daily number off the TV, letting us know it’s seven. In the right company, in the right place, such a sun dial is sufficient.

We don’t bother with the menu, remembering it like we recall the Gettysburg Address Mr. Landman made us memorize in 8th grade history.

Everyone orders their regulars … there may be a cheeseburger, maybe wings, maybe a Greek Western, maybe a Double Giant Whammy Doodle.

For me, it’s a Poor Boy (what Potter’s calls their grilled ham and cheese topped with lettuce and mayo) without tomato on a hoagie roll. Unostentatious and perfect, the sandwich and the setting. Small salad (with beets, because, you know, Uniontown) tossed in their homemade Italian whose taste is worth any indigestion later, and their legendary fries sprinkled with seasoned salt, to share.

But the nourishment I come for is not on the menu.

It’s to hear everyone’s laughter again. Bill throwing his head back in full cackle. Tom’s revving up and going silent in high gear. Matt’s high-pitched giggle. Homer, ready with his quick squirrel chuckle. Andy’s shoulders heaving when he gets going. Chris, fighting through his laugh to throw more logs on the fire. Wolfie just shaking his head.

We go a little quieter when the food comes, order seconds of Pabsts, and are in no great hurry once the bill comes, carrying on the conversation we started here as teenagers.

Cheers, boys ….

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Righteous riffs

Catch Before Fall

Tuesday, November 13, 2020

I plant the black camp chair firm

in the back yard grass just

as the sun and I tip

our hats good evening to this,

the season’s last warm day.

From 70s, 60s now and falling fast,

fall’s full fragrances mingling with the mix tape of neighbors’ bustling,

whispering to me that this is indeed a great, shared secret.

A lawn mower over yonder pushed from front to back,

growling louder and receding,

like the wave of a season’s coming and going….

Neighbor kids squealing just beyond the reach of each other’s tag,

the barking dog so wanting to break free from its leash to join this,

its favorite game in the world ….

The pork chop dinner through the kitchen’s open screened window wafting,

soon summoning the congregation ….

The wrist-revving motorcycle, racing up the street

chasing the last of the jacketless daylight.

50s now, and falling fast,

I rise from my chair and lay down,

surrendering so the grass can pillow my head,

and draw in the deep breath of …

the neighbor’s finished mow,

pork chops on the table,

the fallen leaves scenting the air and promising

a Last. Satisfying. Crackle. Crunch.

When I recluctantly stand back up,

fold the black camp chair, plant it ‘neath the porch,

and shut the back door behind me, turning the lock.

The leashed dog still barking, wanting to play.

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Righteous riffs

Over. Time.

So, THIS would have been the day 

When we would stretch after-school Nerf football 

On the perfect patch of Connor Street between the power lines 

Until the very last drop of daylight … and then some.

Until 

You could smell dinner on the table from each of the houses 

along your deep post pattern.

Until

our moms would yell us inside, 

and we’d beg or ignore for five more minutes.

Until 

we could run under just one more tight spiral 

on that perfect patch between the power lines.

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Righteous riffs

Murder, She Polled ….

(Season 3, Episode 6)

On Friday nights, we’ve taken to watching old episodes of Murder, She Wrote. 

As one does. 

As an aside … happy belated 95th birthday to Dame Angela Lansbury. As an aside to the aside, I found Em the most awesome t-shirt in the universe to honor the occasion. 

To give you just a taste of our recent bliss, last week we dialed up Season 3 Episode 5, and watched the sublime “Corned Beef and Carnage,” [how there isn’t a statue built to the person who came up with that title is a crime that should have merited its own two-part episode ending with a part-one cliffhanger, but I digress…]

… featuring a cast that would rival any Love Boat episode … Charles from MASH, Larry from Three’s Company, “The Man” from Chico and the Man, Kenickie from Grease, and the lovely Susan Anton (insert purring cat sound here).

After last week’s carnage, our expectations were highest-level-before-infinity as we curled into our comfy living room chairs to fire up episode 6 last night. It guest-starred Leslie Nielsen, playing David, an old-high school crush of Jessica’s, who was returning to Cabot Cove as a four-time-divorced smooth-talking debonair shyster, having hired a quartet of young scuba divers to plumb the depths of Cabot Cove in search of forgotten, sunken Pirate treasure.

As one does.

Oh, how high the piles of cocaine must have been in their weekly writer’s room? 

Anyway, here’s where I need you to pay attention and weigh in …

… the episode opens with Angela chatting with Amos (Tom Bosley’s dim-witted sheriff character who Bosley inflects with the absolute worst Maine accent ever attempted) and good ole’ Seth (the town doctor whose relationship with Jessica always almost-but-never-quite teeters beyond the platonic), when David (Leslie Neilsen’s character) spies Angela, taps her on the shoulder, and … 

… gives her an impossibly-hard-to-watch full-mouth excruciatingly long kiss. 

Out of nowhere. With no context.  

For context (as if it even matters to the scene) …  Jessica is a widower, who turned to mystery writing only after the sudden, unexpected death of her dear husband, Frank.

Needless to say Em and I were as taken aback as Seth and Amos. 

In full disclosure, one of us may or may not have blurted out: “What the EFFFFFF is happening right now?” 

No lie, we exchanged at least two rounds of astonished rejoinders by the time those suddenly carnal 50-somethings pulled away from each other.

It was then that we realized that, evidently, we care more about the character (not to mention Frank, her widower, who is probably still spinning in his fictitious grave) NOW than the writers did THEN. This is where we welcome your perspective to balance ours.

Knowing what you now know about the scene (also, if you want to appreciate the following question in its full context, we wholeheartedly encourage you to dial up Season 3, Episode 6, watch it beginning to end, and then return to the polling question. Better yet, start at Season 1, Episode 1, and work your way through the massive pile of dead bodies that Jessica amasses leading up to her randy street encounter with Lt. Frank Drebin.) …

… please weigh in the following. Thanks (as always) for the gift of your time and attention.

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Righteous riffs

Reminiscing in tempo ….

I can’t remember when I found them, I just remember as soon as I saw them I had to get ’em.

For him.  

That was us for a good 14 years, from my first gig as a 14-year-old until I gave up my spot on the bandstand a couple years after getting married.   

I think I made them a Christmas present. And I was right. He treasured them. 

For years afterwards, whenever I’d visit, he’d always point ’em out from their privileged perch on the mantle in the living room. “I smile every time I look at them,” he’d say. “They make me think of all the good times we had.” 

And then we’d reminisce about those good times

I know exactly what he means.

I took them back when we cleaned out the old house four years ago. Gave them a privileged perch on the shelves leading upstairs, so I’d see them every time I came home. 

I smile every time I look at them. They make me think of all the good times we had. 

That’s what I’d tell him if I could call to wish him a happy birthday today. 

I can hear the sound of his voice pitching up the second he recognized it was me, as pure as the tone of his horn.  

“Peeeeeeete!” 

He was always genuinely glad to hear from me every time I’d call. What a gift that was.

That’s what I’m missing today.

I’d call him to wish him a happy birthday, and he’d be the one making me feel good.

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