Thursday, March 22, 2018

When I Go Back

December 1968

Ten minutes after high school let out, I spotted the slim freshman walking alone alongside Half Day Road. I pulled alongside slowly, to avoid splashing icy slush on his jeans, and rolled down the passenger-side window of my rented Ford Thunderbird. 
 “Hey Vlae, I’ll give you a lift home.”
  “Thanks, but I can’t take rides from strangers.” He rocked back and forth near the window, glancing at my eyes, then looking away. 
“I’m not a stranger.”
I’d wanted to rent a dark green Ford Mustang like the one I learned to drive on, but the ones Hertz had at O’Hare International Timeport didn’t include luxuries like the new eight-track tape players. So instead I got the vinyl-topped T-bird and punched a button.
The first notes of “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” one of the Beach Boys’ string of 1964 top ten hits, came out the speakers. The five voices made a dissonant, unstable chord, signaling the song wasn’t another celebration of Southern California youth culture. Brian Wilson’s pitch-perfect falsetto formed the top; Mike Love’s baritone was the bottom. 
The kid leaned through the window. “That’s one of my favorite songs.”
“It’s a song made up of questions. You like to say them out loud and guess the answers.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“I’m you in roughly fifty years.” 
He puckered his cheek and spat air out the left side of his mouth, making a rude noise. “Oh right. That was an episode of Twilight Zone.”
“I’m not kidding. I came back to talk to you.”
He shook his head, flouncing his shoulder-length blond hair. “Is this some kind of scam?”
“I’ll show you my driver’s license.” I handed it over. 
“Whoever you really are, you did your homework. Right spelling. Right date of birth. Right color hair, but not as much of it. Still need glasses. You’re only three inches taller than me, huh? One mistake—I only weigh about 110. Whatever you weigh, I’m never going to hit 195.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Well, I don’t believe you, but okay, you don’t look like a pervert.” He slammed the rear-hinged suicide door and buckled the lap belt. Instead of leaning back in the blue vinyl bucket seat, he continued to rock back and forth. 
“You…I…we live in California, huh?”
“Yeah. You acted on what all those Beach Boys songs were telling you. You got sick of the Chicago winters and being in the middle when Mom and Dad had their fights.”
“Already am.” I pulled back on the road. 
“So here’s what I suggest. Let’s listen to the song one verse at the time and if there’s a  question you really want answered, ask it. 

Chorus: When I grow up to be a man 

Mike’s nasal Southern California accent came barreling through. 

Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?
Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn't done what I did?

Brian took the next two lines, starting in falsetto and dropping into a sweet tenor. 

Will I joke around and still dig those sounds?
When I grow up to be a man

“Stop! What’s the answer to the first one?” 
“The first one, some things you’ll still like, you’ll still be a Cubs fan, for example. Some things you won’t. At a certain age, your back will hurt too much and you’ll quit playing tennis.” 
“Will the Cubs ever win the World Series?”
“The time-travel company made me sign a promise not to divulge specific information about the future that could be used to place bets or for insurance-buying purposes.” Plus, I didn’t want to spoil his delight forty-eight years later. 
I turned right on Milwaukee Avenue and reached the private airport that wouldn’t be there much longer. I spied his long driveway on the left, also long gone. The horse farm our family had rented had been replaced by a Marriott hotel and golf course. 
The second verse began, where the ages start.

Will I look for the same things in a woman that I dig in a girl?
(Fourteen, fifteen)
Will I settle down fast or will I first wanna travel the world?
(Sixteen, seventeen)
Now I'm young and free, but how will it be?
When I grow up to be a man?

“I played this on my birthday so I could hear my age for the first time. I’ve probably played the album 200 times.”
 “The Beach Boys Today!” The exclamation point was one of many efforts by Capitol Records to give the group an image they didn’t fit in real life.  “So any questions you want answered?”
“Will I look for the same things in a woman as I dig in a girl?”
“Don’t say dig, it’ll be a joke word by the time the ‘60s are over. Anyhow, the answer is that you’ll learn from experience to look for different things. 
“What do you mean?”
“You think the two hottest girls in advanced English are Marcia Barbieri and Anna Toft, right?  You prefer Anna because it seems like she’s smarter and is going farther. But if you looked closer, you could see Anna has some emotional issues that will get worse over time but Marcia is going to be a solid person and a great mom.” 
“So what’s your dating advice?”
“Same thing I told my kids. Don’t let sex fuck up your life. Except it’s a little different in your case. You have intense anxiety attacks, you don’t like to be touched, and those things are going to make it hard for you to get into sex for a while.” 
 “Just shut up, okay?”
 “Looks like I hit a nerve.”
 He froze for a minute, his fists clenched, seething. His darting eyes landed on the ash tray. “I want a cigarette. You got any?”
 “Hell no, It took me ten years to quit smoking after you started doing it regularly So here’s some advice--quit going behind the barn with Tony Carioli and sneaking cigarettes.”
“Yes, sir.” He saluted mockingly. 
Dad was going to die of lung cancer, but I couldn’t tell him that. Or that Tony, the coolest kid I knew, would overdose on cocaine a few years later at a party and his supposed friends just let him die because they were afraid they’d be arrested if they called an ambulance.  
 “As for Tony, he’s trouble, but it’s okay to look at his Playboy collection.”
He spat air out the side of his mouth again, his default reaction in any situation that brought on emotion he didn’t want to express, in this case embarrassment. 
“That mouth thing you do is annoying.” 
He rolled his eyes. 

Will my kids be proud or think their old man is really a square?
(Eighteen, nineteen)
When they're out having fun yeah, will I still wanna have my share?
(Twenty, twenty-one)
Will I love my wife the rest of my life?
When I grow up to be a man?

 “How about the ‘will I love my wife’ thing?”
“You know why that’s in the song? Because when Brian wrote it, he had just gotten married and was already having second thoughts. Remember, this is a song by a twenty-three year old writing as if he’s fourteen.”
“Interesting, but you didn’t answer the question.”
“Let’s put it this way. Which wife?”
“Oh, great.” He puckered a cheek and started to make that noise again before catching himself. 
What will I be when I grow up to be a man?
“Exactly what you think you’ll be now.”
“A newspaperman, huh? Well, that makes a good solid career.”
“Yes and no.” 

(Twenty-two, twenty-three)
Won't last forever
(Twenty-four, twenty-five)
It's kind of sad
(Twenty-six, twenty-seven)
Won't last forever
(Twenty-eight, twenty-nine)
It's kind of sad
(Thirty, thirty-one)
Won’t last forever

 He stayed quiet so I started in.
‘Won’t last forever’ is about mortality. I decided to bend the rule about not telling the future. “Two of the Wilson brothers will die fairly young.”
There was only one response, and he got it. “It’s kind of sad.”
Dennis was the sex symbol, the long-haired drummer, the only real surfer in the group. He became a hopeless alcoholic and drowned after drunkenly diving off a boat trying to recover a lost bag of silver dollars.
Carl had the sweetest voice in pop, featured on “Darlin’, “I Can Hear Music,” and the heavenly “God Only Knows.” He died the same way Dad did, lung cancer.
“You know what else is sad—I’m almost double the final age in the song.”
“Man, you’re old.”
I pulled up in his driveway next to the juniper bushes. Nobody was home. Mom and Dad were at work; my sister Tempra was practicing guitar at a friend’s house. 
“It’s starting to snow. I’m going to have to shovel the sidewalk before Mom gets home.”
     “Fucking Chicago winters,” I replied.  
 “It’ll be an hour and a half before anyone else gets home. Want to come in and listen to records?” 
The kid wouldn’t tell anyone this, but he wasn’t popular and often lonely, the opposite of longed-for Beach Boys cool, which explained his attraction. Behind the times, too—the band’s popularity in the hard-rock-loving Chicago suburbs had peaked at least two years earlier.  
“Sure, as long as I can get out of here before the snow gets too deep. I’d like to go in and pet Rye.”
I walked inside the sprawling rancher. The young, hyperactive golden retriever, which we had bred, jumped on the kid. He turned, sniffed my hand curiously and after a second jumped on me too. With his amazing sense of smell, maybe he could tell we were the same person. “When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, he was recognized only by his faithful old dog, who wagged his tail and then died.”
I walked into my old bedroom and spied the bed with the red woven Navajo blanket. An old Underwood manual typewriter sat on his desk with a piece of paper inside. He’d typed out the ages, batting average, and home runs of every Cubs player for the last three years, comparing them at each position to the reigning champions, the St. Louis Cardinals. A second page near the desk contained comparisons of the pitchers’ ERAs and strikeouts. 
“What’s your research show?” I asked. 
“The Cardinals are getting old. The Cubs should be better than them next year.”
True, but along with everyone else, he wasn’t even considering there could be such a thing as the 1969 Miracle Mets. 
He loped over to a pile of albums on the mismatched coffee table and picked up “The Beach Boys Today!” 
“Not that one,” I said. “Let’s try “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!).” 
The kid knew a hack. If he changed the return setting in the middle of a side, at the end of the side the needle arm would return to the place where a single would start, but the turntable would still play at album speed--33 rpm--rather than 45 for singles. That meant that every night at bedtime, he could snuggle under the covers and listen to the full Side One. The needle would return to pick up the last chorus of “Girl Don’t Tell Me”—a knockoff of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”--followed by a second play of his favorite cut, “Help Me Rhonda (single version).” The record player would then shut off and Rhonda would sound so fine in his head as he went to sleep.
I started the side and changed the setting.
“Since nobody knows I do that, you’ve got to be me!” 
The first cut was “The Girl from New York City,” not exactly a classic.
He rocked back and forth again, something I only did when I was nervous. Maybe he was nervous all the time.
 “So like did you come back from the future to give me some advice? Besides not smoking, which everybody says.”
Here goes. “Put more effort into making and keeping friends. Control your temper, it’s going to become a problem. Learn to ski and dance. Ask Marcia Barbieri out on a date; she’s going to look great for at least fifty years.”
He nodded, but the advice sounded hollow. Marty McFly’s success at changing the past in “Back to the Future” was a myth. It’s almost impossible to go back and change the future, because people resist advice that conflicts with their instincts, especially people like him, who had built and fortified several lines of defenses.
 “At least don’t smoke.”  
“Why not? The cool kids do and I’d probably be happier dead anyway.” 
At that moment, I appreciated how unhappy he’d become as a teenager. I stepped forward to give him a hug, forgetting his likely reaction. He drew back and raised his fists like I was about to attack him.
 The record had moved on to the uninspired “Salt Lake City,” one of Brian’s efforts to appease his father, who was a friend of the man who owned the leading radio station in that town. Brian’s long, sad period of mental illness, exacerbated by his father’s physical and emotional abuse, had already begun, though it was still hidden from the public. But Brian wasn’t the only one with problems.
 Not wanting to be touched…rocking back and forth, popping air out the side of his mouth… …obsessed with baseball statistics…periods of anxiety that left him almost immobile. His family had called him a “little man” instead of a boy and he related better to adults than his peers. I’d come back to see if the signs added up the way I suspected. 
“I’m not a psychologist, but I suspect you have a fairly severe case of anxiety disorder and a mild case of something that someday will be called Asperger’s syndrome.” 
He crossed his arms defensively. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”  
“Yeah, but the cost. You can’t even step out on a diving board, much less get on skis. You won’t even get a driver’s license until you’re twenty.” 
“Oh God, don’t tell me that. So what do I do?
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a psychologist.” 
“Did you?”
“No, but I wish I had. I overcame some of our issues, like the fear of driving, and learned to compensate for the rest, but I should have enjoyed life more.”
When the side finally got to “Help Me Rhonda,” I started singing along with Al Jardine on one of his rare solos, one of their best. 

Well since she put me down I've been out doin' in my head
I come in late at night and in the mornin' I just lay in bed
Well, Rhonda you look so fi-i-ine (look so fine)
And I know it wouldn't take much ti-i-ime
For you to help me Rhonda
Help me get her out of my heart

 “Your voice is terrible. Are you sure you gave up cigarettes?”
Brian’s voice had become a wreck, too. “Okay, smartass, you sing it when it comes around again.”
At the end of the side, the needle arm clunked back into position. A minute later, “Rhonda” came on again. The kid scrunched his nasal passages to mimic the accent and took the falsetto tops on the harmonies. 
When it ended, he looked at me appraisingly. “So you’re trying to tell me I’ll get my heart broken?”
“A couple times.” 
“Shit. I’m such a loner. I’m scared I’ll never find anybody.  Tell me this much. Will I ever find a Rhonda?”
I puckered my cheek and spat air out the side of my mouth. Then I winked.

Youtube recordings:

"When I Grow Up" live performance, 1964 – shows how they could harmonize outside a studio.

PopMatters song analysis: When I Grow Up

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Laura Nyro's seven hits

Reading the comments on Laura Nyro-written songs on YouTube, there are usually three comments that stand out:
1) Her seldom-heard originals were better than the hit covers they produced.
2) Music was a lot better than now.
3) What? You mean the Fifth Dimension version wasn't the original? I love Marilyn.

In the period before her 22nd birthday, Nyro wrote all seven of her top hits. Four of them were recorded by the Fifth Dimension:

Stoned Soul Picnic-- The song that brought "surry on down" into the language. Nyro's version and the Fifth Dimension's cover both came out in 1968. Fifth Dimension's reached No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart, it's a little smoother. 

Sweet Blindness-- I loved this song as a teenager. Nyro's 1968 original about her song about  teenagers getting drunk (and horny, if "come on baby do a slow float" means what I think it does) has been described by a Youtube commenter as "like a prog-rock Supremes or Shirelles" with its tempo shifts. But nothing matches the Fifth Dimension's video ride in an antique car along the beach in Cannes.  Marilyn McCoo is breathtaking, and both girls get kissed by their boyfriends at the end. Their version reached No.13, but I never hear it on oldies stations, it's too subversive. 

Wedding Bell Blues-- Written as a circle (the last line of the verse is the first line of the chorus) in 1966, Nyro's soulful version is wonderful even if it's not quite how she wanted to sing it. So is Fifth Dimension's 1969 hit. It was humorously sung on TV by McCoo to her real-life fiancee Billy Davis Jr., and became the only one of Laura's songs to reach No. 1.

Save the Country-- A protest song: "Can't study war no more." Kids on YouTube don't understand "Keep the dream of the two young brothers" is talking about the Kennedys until it's explained to them. It was unusually political for the breezy Fifth Dimension, who recorded it in 1970.

Realizing the Fifth Dimension were working on a groovy thing, other bands started combing through Nyro's albums for songs. Three of them became hits:

And When I Die--  Nyro wrote it when she was sixteen, and how someone that age could come up with those lyrics is an everlasting mystery. She sold it to Peter Paul and Mary for $5,000 and they squandered its emotion in folk-song polyphony like it was "Rock Island Line." Nyro's version came a year later, and is a lot more soulful. In 1968, Blood Sweat and Tears recorded the hit version, reaching No. 2 (they offered Laura the chance to become lead singer, but she wasn't interested). Unlike Nyro's other cover bands, they expanded its vision, with even more tempo changes, adding Western and preaching sections to make it even more surreal.

Eli's Coming-- A crazy song with time and volume changes building to a crescendo. Three Dog Night's hit 1969 version is great, but not any better than Laura's.

Stoney End-- Of all of them, this is the one I think Laura's original is most clearly superior to the hit version, by Barbra Streisand in 1971. Laura's phrasing brings out the lyrics better than Streisand's belting. I'm guessing Stoney End refers to Virginia Woolf's method of suicide, which also goes with the lyric "now I don't believe I want to see the morning."

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Limits of Memory

Most avid baseball fans know about the three great championship droughts, all broken in the 21st century.  One of them, meaningful to my family, has a characteristic the others don’t share.
In 2004, when the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years, newspaper features highlighted their oldest fan, Fred Hale Sr., age 112. He had been twenty-seven when Babe Ruth led them to victory in 1918, before the Bambino was sold to the Yankees, supposedly putting a curse on the team.
In 2005, when the Chicago White Sox won after eighty-eight years, Monsignor Richard O’Donnell, a South Side priest, enjoyed his second championship at the age of ninety-five.
But in 2016, when the Chicago Cubs finally won it all for the first time since 1908, there were no stories about fans who could remember the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play combination and pitcher Three-Finger Brown, whose mangled hand produced an unhittable splitter. The fan base’s memory did not span 108 years, the longest championship drought in any U.S. professional sport.
 It was too much for my great-aunt Tee, a stylish woman who operated a currency exchange on the North Side. She could remember her father taking her to the 1929 World Series at Wrigley Field, which of course the Cubs lost. Eventually, she retired to Las Vegas but continued to watch every game on the WGN superstation, even after glaucoma had taken her sight. She lived into her nineties and never saw the promised land.

                                            Bud, Dad, Norman, Lyle circa 1963 

Sometimes a person has a memory so distant as to come from another world, as when Samuel J. Seymour appeared on the popular TV show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1956. His secret: He saw  John Wilkes Booth assassinate Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. Specifically, he heard a shot, then saw the killer jump from Lincoln’s box to the stage and break his leg. Not knowing what had occurred, the five-year-old wanted to rush to the stage to help Booth.
My own first semi-historic memory also involves a president.  
In October 1962, when I was eight, my sister Tempra and I were spending the weekend at my grandparents’ flat on Chicago’s Northwest Side. My movie-star handsome Uncle Norman came in, sweaty from his Saturday morning handball game. “Want to go see Kennedy?” he asked.
“Really? I’ve never seen a president before!”
The Chicago Tribune had the details on the front page: The president would arrive at O’Hare Airport at 4:30 p.m. His motorcade would proceed down the Northwest Expressway to a Democratic rally at City Hall. 
We left my Republican grandparents behind, walked a couple blocks, and scrambled down a grassy hillside to the expressway’s steel railing. There was no security checkpoint.  A single cop stood around, bored, not looking at us.   
A motorcade began crawling by. The fire engines, sirens blaring, came first, followed by a dozen or more police cars, lights flashing. Finally, I spotted the open convertible carrying Kennedy in the back seat. He stiffly turned his head, but not his injured back, to wave to the crowds on both sides.  His face was puffy and pale, not the tanned look he had on TV. Still, he outclassed Chicago’s saggy-faced mayor, Richard J. Daley, in the seat next to him.
I was no more than fifteen yards away.  With a skimming stone from a Lake Michigan beach, I might have been able to conk him.
An hour later, after his speech downtown, Kennedy canceled the rest of his campaign swing and returned to Washington. The explanation given to the media was that he had a bad cold. The real reason was that it was the fourth day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, though no one except the president and his advisers knew about it. A few days later, we’d be doing duck-and-cover drills under our desks and talking about our dads building bomb shelters.

Friday, November 22, 1963, was unusually warm in suburban Highland Park, with occasional light rain. I was playing soccer at lunchtime on the Ravinia school field with a tin can for a ball when somebody said Kennedy had been shot. We rushed into the classroom. Mr. Detweiler had brought out a small black-and-white TV. After a few minutes, Walter Cronkite said Kennedy was dead, took off his glasses, wiped his eyes. Mr. Detweiler couldn’t think of anything to say. School was dismissed. On the way home, everyone was quiet except for a Republican kid who shouted an impromptu rhyme, “JFK’s dead/He was shot in the head.”  
All weekend, I watched much of the round-the-clock assassination television coverage including the shocking shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. TV retrospectives show the same clips over and over, and assume the nation was plunged into sorrow by the death of its gallant young president.  I don’t remember grief, though, just shock. Over the weekend, a consensus had formed Kennedy had been a great man.
Tuesday, when school resumed, the kid who came up with the rhyme stayed quiet. Friday, the Chicago City Council voted to rename the Northwest Expressway for Kennedy.

Christmas 1963: Uncle Nick, Tee’s husband, carried a brown paper bag into my grandparents’ flat. He raised it briefly. The men went out in back.
 Nick called it Dago Red. The wine was supposedly made in some friend’s garage, though Dad suspected Nick just poured a jug of Gallo into a fruit jar and passed it off as bootleg.
Nick was Italian; my father Jewish, adding some ethnicity to an Anglo-Saxon family that had been in rural central Illinois since pioneer days, before moving to the big city in the 1920’s. “These Chicago marriages. There ought to be a law,” my grandfather, Lyle Pritchard, had joked.
To my mother’s embarrassment, he took a job in the Depression driving a Chicago Transit Authority bus and held it the rest of his life.  It didn’t bother him. The regular hours left him more time for his hobbies, including clarinet, photography, skeet shooting, and sailing. When he spotted a rare coin in the fare box, he added it to his collection.
He was open about disliking blacks, whom he called “colored.” White and black drivers competed for the best routes and never shared a table in the lunchroom.  In fact, he didn’t even root for the Cubs, because the National League had too many black players. He preferred the American League, dominated by the Yankees, who were almost all white.
His attitude came as a shock. Living in the mostly liberal, all-white suburb of Highland Park, I didn’t actually know any black people, but the Cubs’ big stars, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, were heroes.
The tension between my mother and grandfather extended to my upbringing. Mother had resisted television, kept us away from other kids, taught me to read at age two. By five, I could name the presidents in order, from Washington to Eisenhower, and identify their pictures.  I was so serious family members called me “our little man.”
She discouraged television and pop culture influences, but took my sister and me to string quartet concerts, including difficult composers like  Schoenberg, and the Art Institute, with its renowned collection of modern art. Paul Klee was my favorite.
My grandfather didn’t approve. He accused Mother of sissifying me. Besides teaching me the history of baseball, he gave me lessons in shooting, boxing, and fencing.

We sat down to a turkey dinner, indistinguishable from Thanksgiving except for the additions of Waldorf salad and Stollen. My grandfather sprinkled Tabasco on lots of dishes including mashed potatoes, a practice I picked up, but only when the chef was looking the other way.
After dinner, the men retreated to the living room and cigars. All five of them, plus nine-year-old me, wore white shirts, ties, and slacks.  The vinyl-covered chairs and sofas came from Community Discount World, including my favorite, the vibrating, reclining easy chair. Even in the all-male setting, there wouldn’t be a swear word spoken, presumably because of me.
These guys all knew guns. My grandfather, a bit too old for World War II, was a skeet shooter.  Most of the others had served in the Army in the 1950s.
“Three shots in seven seconds.”  Uncle Nick extended his left arm, put his head against his shoulder, and closed one eye.
“Bang.” He turned the imaginary weapon fifteen degrees to the right. “Bang.” He turned again. “Bang. I don’t think Oswald could have done it. That’s a tough shot from that distance.”
My Dad, who as a corporal had taught recruits to shoot, closed one eye and tried it with his own  imaginary rifle. “I don’t think it would be that hard.”
No one expressed regrets—some of them hated Kennedy, and in any case those men wouldn’t voice a weak emotion like sympathy in all-male company.
Nick thought it was the communists who did it. Oswald might have been one of the shooters, but there was somebody else on the grassy knoll.
Norman, my bodybuilder uncle, thought it was the CIA taking revenge on Kennedy for failing to support its ill-fated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Norman was a supporter of Fidel Castro. He was also the first person I knew who opposed the war in Vietnam, shocking to a child who had never heard anything except that the United States was always the good guy.
Dad told me Norman came home a few months in the Army on a “general discharge.” That didn’t mean anything to me. Years later, I figured out he was hinting Norman got kicked out because he was secretly gay.
I stayed quiet, though I was convinced Oswald was the lone killer, not part of any conspiracy. My parents didn’t like it when I argued with adults.
 Half a century later, I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and looked out the window toward the X painted in the street. Dad had been right--he could have made those shots easily. It confirmed my belief Oswald’s only assistance came from ludicrously inadequate security measures like the ones I’d witnessed a year earlier. Chicago was lucky the assassination hadn’t happened there.

The closest I can come to the way children and adults interacted in 1963 is a black-and-white TV show made that month, “The Judy Garland Christmas Special,” which I watch every December on YouTube.
Despite a dysfunctional family life, and addicted to painkillers, Judy manages to present the illusion of an ideal family as she invites viewers into a replica of her Hollywood living room.
She is joined on the sofa by her younger children, ten-year-old Lorna Luft, in a lace-trimmed dress, and eight-year-old Joey, in an over-the-top fur-trimmed smoking jacket with tie. Others begin arriving, including her teenage daughter Liza Minnelli and singer Jack Jones, who performs the wistful “Lollipops and Roses.”
Lorna (coming up to him): Excuse me, Mr. Jones.
Jack: Yes, Lorna.
Lorna: Would you please sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town?”
Jack: You know, actually it’s a children’s song.
Lorna (giggles):  I was hoping you’d say that.
Jack (smiling): Oh. So you’d like to sing.
Lorna sits on Jack’s knee. The polite little girl transforms into a miniature version of her mother, belting out the song confidently. At the finish, he congratulates her with a squeeze.

February 1964-- I came to school on Monday and everyone—even the teachers—was talking about the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” the night before, seen by a record 73 million viewers.
One boy, already growing his hair long, brought his acoustic guitar. As we waited at the entrance to get in out of the cold, he performed “Please Please Me,” laboriously arranging his fingers to make the chords.
It seemed everyone had watched, except me.  I didn’t even know it was happening, or even who the Beatles were.
We had only a small black-and-white television and were limited to 10 hours a week. I watched little besides news and sports, especially the Cubs.
Mother spoke beautifully, with no trace of the Chicago accent used by most of the “hunnerts” of people I knew. She played only classical music on the hi-fi. Her taste was ascetic, preferring chamber music, particularly Vivaldi, to symphonies or, God forbid, opera.  Despite an obvious lack of talent, I was forced to struggle through three years of violin lessons.
Sometimes other parents congratulated Mother on keeping us insulated from a shallow popular culture. Still, they didn’t do the same thing with their kids. I had only a vague notion I was missing something important.
In the months ahead, while many boys grew their hair to resemble the mop-top Beatles, I kept my crew cut. I never wore jeans to school, only button-down shirts and slacks. I didn’t make the jump to the ‘60s until they were two-thirds over.
Even in relatively liberal Highland Park, red-lining by the real estate industry and banks kept blacks from buying a home. A petition came around urging a Fair Housing law that would ban racial covenants. Mother signed.  Dad refused for some reason, probably property values. She was angry about that forever.
In December 1966, we left Highland Park, and its economic and social pressure my parents couldn’t quite keep up with, and moved to a rented 52-acre horse farm in an unincorporated area called Half Day (now part of Lincolnshire). The community was in transition from farmland to suburban. Some of my classmates were culturally rural, with thick Kentucky accents.
1967 was the worst year of my childhood. I was made fun of for my formal way of speaking, my dress slacks, my out-of-date crew cut. I got into a few fights. In those days, they didn’t suspend boys for fighting, they just broke it up and life moved on. If a kid got bullied, the solution was to get stronger and tougher.
The main compensation of the year was the Cubs. After being terrible for twenty years (an eternity to a thirteen-year-old), their young talent came together, posting a winning season and the prospect of better things to come.
In self-defense, I did 100 push ups a day, roughened my accent and grew bangs to the top of my eyes. My popularity improved after I hosted a party designed to prepare decorations for a pep rally, which spun out of control after some kids raided the liquor cabinet and couples started making out in the swimming pool control room. Dad was furious, but really, what other parents wouldn’t think of monitoring the party, or at least locking up the booze?
Over the next few years, we slowly moved toward the mainstream, never quite getting there. By the time my parents divorced, it was obvious whatever they’d been aiming for hadn’t been achieved.

The most distant famous memory belonged to the person documented as the oldest who ever lived, Jeanne Calment, who lived to 122. She became famous at age 113 when reporters visited Arles, France, to write about the 100th anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s yearlong stay.
Calment told reporters she remembered Van Gogh visiting her father’s shop to buy canvas. She recalled him as ugly, alcoholic, and a customer of prostitutes, an unexpected impression of the post-Impressionist. If Calment could still remember Van Gogh just before she died, that memory would have been 109 years old.
By coincidence, direct memory of  the Great San Francisco Earthquake also lasted 109 years. Ruth Newman was a four-year-old girl living on ranch in Healdsburg, 70 miles north of the city, on April 18, 1906. She recalled her grandmother being upset because they had just milked the cow and separated the cream, only for it to be shaken all over the floor. Newman died in 2015. 
Those two cases show it would have been possible—barely—for a particularly long-lived Cubs fan to have had memories of both 1908 and 2016, though it didn’t happen.
If we take 109 years as the limit of memory, and build in a five-year margin of safety, the Cubs should have until at least 2120 to win again and still have a fan who can remember the 2016 championship. Even for them, that should be doable.

Memory can be measured in ways other than years. Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory” contains the memorable line “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” For Nabokov, the crack revealed an astonishing amount of light.
The author takes readers to the vanished world of his youth, the aristocracy of pre-Revolutionary Russia, with tales of childhood pranks on sad middle-class tutors and governesses. He describes passing by a pretty peasant girl on his family estate who called him “the young master,” giving a sly indication he got an erection—a precursor, perhaps, of his most famous character, Lolita.
 Nabokov’s world disappeared with the Revolution, along with his family’s fortune and some of his relatives. He never returned to Russia, even though he could have done so as a U.S. citizen.
My grandmother Lena’s childhood world also vanished, though she sometimes went to the physical place. She had grown up without automobiles, electricity, indoor plumbing, or central heating. The absence of a furnace was particularly important—children got the sniffles all winter. The technological distance from her horse-and-buggy childhood to old age, with all those things plus television, atomic energy, jet and space travel, and the personal computer, seems far greater than the gap between my childhood and now.
The main distance from my childhood is social. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the pursuit of money, respectability and social conformity was supplanted by a do-your-own -thing attitude and a widespread sense of social justice. Money rushed back in the room with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, remounting its accustomed throne, where it remains today.  But respectability, high standards of dress, and children’s deference toward adults were left sputtering outside the door.

I got away from Chicago winters and my fighting parents at age eighteen and have long lived in the Bay Area. Still, my longest-lasting ambition was to see the Cubs win it all.
Most of the 2016 season, the Cubs had the best record in the National League, but that had also been the case in 1969, 1984, and 2002, and it hadn’t led to anything but heartbreak. Some people blamed a curse uttered by the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern after his pet goat was banned from Wrigley Field. More likely, it was dumb management that even in good years never acquired enough pitching to survive the grueling season.
Early in the decade, the Cubs brought in Theo Epstein, the executive who had broken the curse in Boston. He cold-heartedly tanked a couple of seasons, trading the best players to obtain younger talent still in the minors and all but admitting he was trying to finish last to get top draft choices.  One of those picks, third baseman Kris Bryant, blossomed into the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2016.
 By luck, the Cubs’ first opponents in the playoffs were the San Francisco Giants. Jacquie and I took the train to AT&T Park in Cubs gear.  People in our car were surprised we paid with fare cards designed for commuters, having assumed we were part of the army of traveling Cubs fans instead of locals who didn’t happen to share their allegiance to the Giants.
Baseball fans are highly superstitious. During the playoffs, if the Cubs won, I kept the same t-shirt on for the next game; if they lost, I’d finally throw it in the laundry.
 About the time the World Series began, I learned the family that owned the Cubs were major financial backers of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and I had a premonition  the Ricketts family would get both their wishes or neither.  I told myself I’d accept the tradeoff.
The World Series came down to a decisive seventh game. Tickets in Cleveland were going for $10,000. I was content to watch on TV in my “Just Once Before I Die” t-shirt, hoping the wish would be fulfilled that night and thinking I might have a fatal heart attack if it weren’t.
The game was long and tense. The Cubs took a 6-3 lead into the eighth but had to bring in overworked relief ace Aroldis Chapman, who was throwing well below his normal speed. He gave up a game-tying home run, an echo of past pitching collapses.
 The game went into the 10th inning. A shower moved in, causing a 20-minute delay that gave the Cubs time to regroup. They came out strong, retaking the lead on a double by my favorite player, Ben Zobrist. Final score, 8-7. Pure joy! I fielded congratulations from friends from all over.
Six days later, Trump won. I still feel guilty.
None of the ten adults around the 1963 Christmas table got to see the Cubs’ triumph. Mother had been the last survivor. She had gotten a cancer diagnosis early in the year, at age eighty-seven, and a few days later took her own life, not even waiting to hear a course of treatment. Late in her life, I could sense her disappointment her remarkable little man had grown into such a conventional middle-aged adult.
She had no interest in sports, but I suspect she would have cried for Aunt Tee.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Finding Out

The morning before I entered first grade--kindergarten had yet to reach small-town Indiana--my parents drove me to the county courthouse in Valparaiso. In a room with an impossibly high ceiling, the judge granted me a new last name to replace one I didn’t even know I had.
After court, we stopped at an ice cream parlor. As I gobbled a mocha chip sundae, my parents instructed me not to tell my little sister my mother had been married before, or that I was only her half-brother.  Instant glee! I had a secret to hold over her.
Except for that day, my parentage was never openly discussed. My mother, Lee, had been married to a silk-screen artist named Milan when I was conceived. We received child support from him for a few years, even though she had gotten remarried to Bill, the only Dad I knew. 
Still, as a teenager I realized my evolving looks were being scrutinized for a family game of “Who’s Your Daddy?” Unlike Milan, I didn’t look Serbian. Unlike Bill, I didn’t look Eastern European Jewish. Both of them had dark hair. I resembled my maternal uncles Bud and Norman —light-skinned, light-haired, with ancestry they called early American.
Vlae, Bill, Tempra, Lee, Christmas 1962

Bud, Dad, Norman, my Grandfather Lyle --When lapel pulling was the height of style 
Once a great-aunt on Dad’s side, visiting from Canada, remarked on my similarity with blond relatives she remembered from Ukraine. But Aunt Freda, a practical immigrant who had little use for my artistically minded Mother, couldn’t see any resemblance to their family.
I can’t say I wondered about it much, except for this: If Dad wasn’t my real father, was I still half-Jewish, or all Christian? Neither of my parents was religious, but they had relatives who were, and the two families were never invited over at the same time.
One night when I was a teenager, my father came home from a long day at his import crafts store. Mother was just back from a horseback ride. Dinner was not being prepared. A vodka martini or two later, the fight began. A hand-crafted Tonala serving dish, bought back from Mexico by my father, flew through the air and shattered against the wall.
“You know she was married before, right?” Dad yelled. “She doesn’t work and she doesn’t keep house either. She acted the same way with her first husband.”
My sister ran to her room, crying. The secret was out. A few years later, they divorced. Neither remarried.

In the 1990s, Dad retired to New Mexico. He had house built and furnished it with Mexican and Native American crafts. Mother visited him for extended periods in the winter. They liked to cross the border at Juarez, shop for hand-crafted furniture and decorations, and hit up Chihuahua Charlie’s for margaritas. They would return buzzed to Las Cruces, get into an argument, and retire to separate floors. She wanted to move in. He said no.
Dad, who had started smoking as a nine-year-old dead end kid, developed lung cancer. That summer, he finally brought up the unmentionable subject.
 Genetic testing was just becoming readily available. “I thought about getting the test and having you get one, but at this point it doesn’t make any difference.”
I agreed. Milan had rejected my inquiries when I was a young man, so screw him. Either way, I only had one Dad.
After Dad died, Mother moved into the house my sister and I had inherited.  She made it even more of a showpiece as well as a shrine to him.
In 2011, when she was eighty-two and I was fifty-seven, she poured my coffee into a Tonala mug on the deck overlooking the saw-toothed Organ Mountains.
“Vlae, I had the test done and I paid for one for you too.”
For the first time, she told me the story. During World War II, she, Bill, and Milan began working together at Chicago’s Polk Brothers electronics store. A love triangle developed.
At seventeen, she married Milan, a decade older. She didn’t love him but was taken by his Old World courtship and her desire to get out of the house of her autocratic father. Her mother cried.
Still, she never lost contact with Bill. When he returned from the Army, they picked up on their old affair. In July 1953, she packed up her bags and they hightailed it to a summer hotel in the Indiana Dunes.
I arrived the following Easter Sunday. The timing was such she didn’t know if Milan or Bill was my father. 
Now, she wanted an answer before she died. A company called 23AndMe promised to identify one’s ethnic heritage. I spit into a barcoded tube and mailed away the sample.
Three weeks later, I opened the envelope.
 “Forty-three percent Northwest European, forty-three percent Eastern European Jewish, fourteen percent other.” So Dad was my Dad. I fist-pumped “Yesss...”
What would have happened if we had known when I was growing up? Maybe he wouldn’t have been so distant. Maybe I would have felt Jewish instead of celebrating Christmas and ignoring religion the other 364 days.
I phoned Mother. She started to cry.
“I wish Bill could hear this,” she said. “It would have meant so much to him.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One Question Stays or Goes From 'Is You Is' To 'R U Mine'

Insecure guys in relationships ask a certain question.

For the Arctic Monkeys, it's "R U Mine?" a rock song released by the UK band in 2012 that became a gold record despite (or because) the fact the title was written in text-speak instead of English.
Not that it's the first time that question became a hit.

The U.K. punk band The Clash scored in 1982 with "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" which became the band's only No. 1 single a decade later. It still sounds good today. The lyric "Don't know which clothes even fit me" says all you need to know about that particular relationship. Next time, pick up your underwear, Joe.

In 1967, Paul Revere & The Raiders, an American band with the British Invasion sound, scored with "Him Or Me" -- What's it gonna be?

Long before that, bandleader Louis Jordan topped the "race charts" in the 1940s with a raucous sound that helped pave the way for '50s rock-and-roll (which, unfortunately, ended Jordan's time at the top). His slang-slinging hits include the raucous "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" from 1944, which reached the top three on the R&B, pop and country charts, a rare triple for anyone, especially a black artist at the time.

One can imagine that if Jordan's girlfriend was an English teacher, just the title of that song would be enough to produce a curt "I am NOT."

This is a pretty universal sentiment, the dude asking the intentions of the girl, usually with a rival lurking in the shadows.

I don't know of any songs where a woman asks that specific question--Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" wants to know something subtly different.