Thursday, May 21, 2015

TBT: B.B. King, "Sweet Little Angel."

B.B. King, who died one week ago, was perhaps the best known blues artist of the past several decades. He wasn't my favorite; I preferred the harder edged style of, to name some examples, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, and Koko Taylor. Still, King's subtler but still emotionally compelling singing, along with his vocally evocative guitar, made blues more accessible to a wide audience. As the New York Times obituary linked above notes, what he considered his "breakthrough" performance was at the San Francisco rock venue the Fillmore Auditorium in 1968.

Below is a clip of King doing "Sweet Little Angel," one of my favorites of his songs:

Photo: B.B. King following a White House performance; Eric Draper, photographer (Wikimedia Commons).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

TBT. A salute to American Idol: the Dollyrots, "Because I'm Awesome."

The news that American Idol will be going the way of all pop culture phenomena after one more season brought to my mind a delightful send-up of the show in its salad days; one that ends with a Simon Cowell look-alike cringing in terror of imminent castration. This is the video of "Because I'm Awesome" by the Dollyrots:

The Dollyrots (not to be confused with the Dolly Dots, a Dutch girl group popular in the '80s), have a style that's been described as "bubblegum punk." The group consists of a husband and wife--Luis Cabezas, who plays guitar, sings, and jumps around a lot, and Kelly Ogden, who plays bass and sings--and whatever drummer they happen to be working with. They've had more drummers than Spinal Tap, though I don't think any of them underwent spontaneous bodily combustion, died in a bizarre gardening accident, or choked on someone else's vomit.

Cabezas and Ogden met when they were students at New College in Sarasota, Florida, at the time a branch campus of my alma mater. They now call L.A. home. They have a daughter, River, who was in utero when they made their album Barefoot and Pregnant. They also do a nice cover of Melanie's 1971 hit "Brand New Key," which I'm including as a bonus, since it also counts as a TBT:

Monday, May 11, 2015

Taking the Measure of the Mets at (almost) mid-May

Quotation of the day:
"This is the National League. You have to be on your toes."
--Mets third string catcher Johnny Monell (photo) quoted in today's New York Times.

Monell was called up last week to back up backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, who became the starter when Travis d'Arnaud went on the DL. In yesterday's game at Philadelphia, the rubber game of a tied series, Terry Collins rested Plawecki--he decided to rest some starters in this third game of a sadistically scheduled twenty straight games without a break--and started Anthony Recker. In the eighth, with the Mets holding a 5-4 lead, Monell was the only lefty batter on the bench, so Collins sent him to the plate and he produced a two run double that gave the Mets their 7-4 margin of victory.

The Mets' record is now 20-11. It's no longer the best in MLB; it's only the third best in the NL. The Cards are 22-9 and the Dodgers 20-10. In the comparison that's most important to me and to most New Yorkers, the Mets are one half game ahead of the 20-12 Yankees. Still, they are below the fold in the Times sports section.

Should the Mets play .500 ball for the rest of the season, they would end with 86 wins, which could give them a shot at the wild card. It could even give them the NL East title, provided the Nats, now 3 1/2 games behind and playing .531 ball, don't do much better than .500 for the rest of the season, and neither the Braves nor the Marlins catch fire. The prospect of the Mets continuing to play at their present sizzling .645 rate, which includes a twelve game winning streak, seems unlikely. The chances of their playing better than .500, though, seem reasonably good, provided that third baseman David Wright and lefty reliever Jerry Blevins come off the DL in good shape and stay that way, starting RHP Noah Syndergaard lives up to the hype, and they're spared a further plethora of injuries (always a chancy assumption with the Mets). Closer Jenrry Mejia is serving an eighty game suspension for failing a banned substance test, but Jeurys Familia, with thirteen saves so far, has proved a most capable replacement.

Monell's quip sums up why I prefer the NL game to the dumbed down version played in That Other League.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

TBT: Ben E. King with the Drifters, "This Magic Moment."

Ben E. King, born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938, who died one week ago today, is most remembered for the haunting ballad "Stand By Me", a hit in 1961, later featured in Rob Reiner's 1986 movie of the same title, with a screenplay by Stephen King. Before going solo, Ben E. King had been lead singer of The Drifters, a protean R&B group which still exists after many personnel changes. The Drifters were formed in 1953 by Ahmet Ertegun to serve as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter. McPhatter was drafted in 1954, and sold his interest in the Drifters, along with the name, to George Treadwell, a jazz trumpeter and talent manager.

Treadwell did not pay the musicians well; this, along with the draft and personal problems caused many changes in The Drifters' membership between 1954 and '58. Several former members joined in a group they called "The Original Drifters"; a version of this group still exists today. In 1958 Treadwell fired the remaining non-original Drifters, then hired Ben E. King and three other musicians from a group called the Five Crowns and made them The Drifters.

With King as lead vocalist, The Drifters had several hits. This was partly attributable to King's vocal talent and partly to Ertegun's having entrusted the production of their recordings to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the two men behind, as songwriters and producers, so much of the best R&B of the late fifties and after. The King-led Drifters scored first with "There Goes My Baby," a mournful ballad with string accompaniment that made it to number two on the pop chart and number one on R&B in 1959. They made it to the top of the pop chart in 1960 with what is probably their best remembered song, "Save the Last Dance for Me." My favorite, though, is "This Magic Moment" (video above) released earlier in 1960, which charted at number sixteen. The "woo-woo" strings are cheesy, but the song showcases the dynamics and warmth of King's voice.

Ben E. King portrait by Mira Sasson.

Monday, May 04, 2015

You graduate; you don't graduate your school.

For some time now I've been getting periodic email updates from a blog called "Law Prose" from Bryan Garner, who seeks to improve lawyers' use of language. Being a usage scold (right now I'm riled up over apostrophe abuse in some documents I've been reading) I always peruse Garner's posts, so far always with appreciation. Most of them are on matters relating to the drafting of legal papers, but his most recent one is on a more general pet peeve of mine. I cringe whenever I read or hear something like "John Doe graduated Princeton in 1995." No, no, no. John did not "graduate Princeton"; he graduated from Princeton.

Garner tells us that the original syntax, dating from the fifteenth century, was in the form "Christ College Cambridge graduated John" or, "more commonly," he writes, "John was graduated from Christ College Cambridge." This makes sense; the school graduates the student, not the opposite. In the nineteenth century, though, the "was" began to be dropped from the latter construction, thus going from the passive to the active voice and making "graduate" an ergative verb. (Hey, you learn something every day!) So it became "John graduated from Princeton." It's clear from this construction that John did nothing to Princeton (apart from receiving a diploma from it and, perhaps, leaving).

But then, Garner notes with sorrow, sometime in the mid twentieth century it became common to drop the "from," leaving "Jane graduated Yale," or the like. As he writes: "Although this wording is becoming increasingly common, it is best avoided." He continues:
As the Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh puts it, “When I hear ‘I graduated college,’ I want to answer ‘No, you didn’t.’ . . . [Y]ou call your education into question if you omit the from.”

Thursday, April 30, 2015

TBT: The Dovells, "You Can't Sit Down"

Sometime in 1963 I was with the Robinson High School debate team at a tournament held on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee. The evening after we arrived, my teammates and I were in a student cafe, having burgers and cokes. The cafe had a juke box and a small dance floor. A couple looking much like those in the photo, except that the woman was wearing a tartan skirt and black-on-white saddle Oxfords with white bobby socks, got up; the man put a coin in the juke box, and a very lively tune began. The couple did a frenetic jitterbug with lots of twirling and, if I recall correctly, the man lifting the woman by the waist and swinging her around.

.The song was "You Can't Sit Down," a '63 hit for the Dovells, a Philadelphia group whose biggest hit was "The Bristol Stomp" and who recorded on Cameo Records, part of the Cameo-Parkway group that was central to the Philly rock and R&B scene in the late 1950s through the '60s.

Monday, April 27, 2015

South Street Seaport Opens for 2015 Season

The South Street Seaport Museum has been an important part of my life since I arrived in New York as a permanent resident in 1973. At that time, I was working downtown, in the Financial Distrct, and could see the tall masts of a square rigged ship from the offices of the firm for which I was working. This piqued my curiosity; four crossings of the Atlantic by ship during my childhood had made me a maritime buff. During a lunch break I walked over to the Museum and became a member. I later toured the historic ships, discovered its book and craft shops, and participated in many of its activities. The Museum, though not its collection of historic ships, was seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and for some time there was doubt if it could survive. Now its fortunes have improved.

This past Saturday, April 25, I walked from my home in Brooklyn Heights across the Brooklyn Bridge to attend the official re-opening of the Museum's historic ship collection. Approaching the Museum on Fulton Street, I took the photo above, which could have been a scene from over a century ago. The masts of the barque Peking loom over the rooflines of Schermerhorn Row, a group of commercial buildings dating from the early nineteenth century, which now house the Museum's visitor center and galleries, along with several commercial stores.
One of the historic ships on display is the lightship Ambrose, which guided ships through the entrance to New York Bay from 1908 to 1932. In 1973 I saw my first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a performance of HMS Pinafore, staged on the Ambrose by the Blue Hill Troupe.
On Saturday there was a musical performance in front of Ambrose: lively folk music by the Lobbyists.
Two women were on the crosstree of the foremast of the fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard.
I boarded Ambrose and got this photo of her enormous bell, used to warn ships away when fog was thick.
Going insider her wheelhouse, I got this photo of her wheel.
This is Lettie G. Howard's bow, as seen from Ambrose. During her long career as a fishing schooner, she sometimes brought fish to the Fulton Fish Market, which was located at South Street. The market has since been moved to the Bronx. Lettie is now owned by the Museum, but shared with the New York Harbor school, which uses her as a training vessel.
Also from Ambrose, I got this view of visitors on Peking's quarterdeck.
Boarding Peking, I saw her builder's plate, showing that she was completed in 1911 by the prominent shipbuilders Blohm & Voss of Hamburg.
These two gentlemen were explaining the fine points of navigation on Peking's quarterdeck. On the table were charts of New York Harbor and its approaches.
This is Peking's mighty sewing machine, used to repair sails.
On the left is the Museum's working barge, used for ship repair duties. In the center is the schooner Pioneer, used by the Museum for harbor cruises. When my daughter was in middle school she took some instructional sails on Pioneer. On the right is the square rigger Wavertree, which will soon be going into drydock for renovation that will allow her to be the centerpiece of the Museum's collection.
After scarfing down a Korean beef hot dog, dressed with spicy kimchi, I took a walk back to Schermerhorn Row and the Museum's visitor center. Here, visitors were invited to participate in creating a mural.
As a regular Museum visitor I've known Jack Putnam for some years, as manager of the book store and craft shop, and for a time as operator of a ferry service the Museum offered from Fulton Landing in Brooklyn, near where I live, to the Museum's pier on the Manhattan side, near where I worked at the time. On Saturday I found him in the Museum's Maritime Craft Center, here holding the framework of a model dory he's making. Two completed examples are on the table in front.
There were more examples of the modelmaker's art in the Craft Center's window.
Next door to the Craft Center is the Bowne Print Shop, a restored 19th century printing establishment. The photo above shows one of its vintage presses.
Jack mentioned to me that someone named Tony was on Pier 16 working on a figurehead for Wavertree. I went back to the pier and found him carving away.
Captain Jonathan Boulware has served as interim president of the Museum for several years. On Saturday it was announced that he is now president. He read a letter from Mayor Bill de Blasio recognizing the Museum's importance in preserving New York City's maritime, commercial, and cultural heritage.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

TBT: Golden Earring, "Radar Love."

I remember somewhere this Dutch group's 1973 hit being voted the best song to listen to while driving. This live video must have been made in Holland; everyone in the audience seems so reserved. I'm guessing the women sitting on the edge of the stage are the band's girlfriends.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

DH for the National League? Say it ain't so!

Do you want to deny Bartolo Colon (photo) the opportunity to repeat his two RBIs for the Mets so far this season?

That's what lots of pundits argue for: make the National League conform to the American League rule that allows each team to have a designated hitter who substitutes for the pitcher in the batting order, thereby relieving the pitcher of any offensive duty. The arguments for the DH are: (1) increase scoring by eliminating an unproductive batter, and (2) speed up the game by eliminating pitcher changes when a pitcher has to be taken out for a pinch hitter, necessitating a warmup session for his substitute. However, it's been argued that the DH actually slows down games by allowing more intra-inning pitching changes, since these don't affect the batting lineup.

My arguments against the DH are well documented here. I think it dumbs down the game in an effort to appeal to fans who want more scoring. The only major sport I can think of that has more scoring on a consistent basis is basketball. I haven't compared statistics, but I'd be willing to wager that scoring in NFL football is about as frequent, on the average, as in major league baseball, if we count only touchdowns and field goals and ignore the point after the TD. As for hockey and soccer, I think it's evident that scoring is less frequent than in baseball in both.

With respect to speeding up the game, I'll confess to something idiosyncratic: I like regular breaks in the action that give me time to reflect on the situation, get a snack, chat with a friend, whatever. In any event, the evidence shows that the DH has little or no effect on game times. Besides, why must we assume that pitchers can't hit? Look at Bartolo Colon. Heck, look at Dwight Gooden back in the day, or Warren Spahn. Lots of pitchers--really good pitchers--can or could hit.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

TBT: Percy Sledge (1940-2015), "Take Time to Know Her"

Percy Sledge, who died Tuesday, is most remembered for his 1966 number one hit, "When a Man Loves a Woman." My favorite of his, though, is "Take Time to Know Her," which charted at number 11 (number 6 on the R&B chart) in 1968.

In the New York Times obituary linked above, critic Dave Marsh is quoted as having:

compared Mr. Sledge’s weighty, smooth wail to “the South itself, in all its bountiful, contradictory mystery.”
Percy Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Monday, April 13, 2015

One week Mets report: they're above .500!

What we know about the Mets now: (1) Bartolo Colon is a wonder at 41, having won two games, and driven in the winning run (see it here) in game 3 against the Braves, thereby avoiding a sweep (that's why I love the NL not having the DH--pitchers should contribute to offense like all other players); (2) Jeurys Familia (photo) may be a capable stand-in as closer for the suspended Jenrry Mejia, having two saves under his belt so far; (3) shortstop Wilmer Flores is error prone, perhaps reflecting a choice of offensive over defensive potential; (4) the Mets can beat the Nats on the road (2-1); and (5) they can win at least one game out of a three game series in Atlanta.

My sense: glass half full.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Michael Simmons and Slewfoot, "The Teaser's Waltz"

"Dance with me, dance with me, Devil...."

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

TBT: John Fogarty, "Centerfield."

Yes, it's that time of the year. There's lots of great old baseball footage on the accompanying video.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Mets tied for first in NL East!

Forty one year old Bartolo Colon (photo) went six innings, striking out eight and giving up three hits, Lucas Duda drove in two runs with a single, the bullpen yielded nothing, and the Mets beat Washington 3-1 at Nationals Park in their season opener. The Nats' starter, Max Scherzer, was impressive, but was undone by errors that allowed the Mets to score all three of their runs unearned. Ironically, Washington was undone by what have been the Mets' bugbears: poor defense and an inability to bring in runners from scoring position.

The Mets share the division lead with their erstwhile nemeses, the Braves, who beat the Marlins 2-1. The other Eastern Division team, the Phils, got clobbered in an interleague game with the Red Sox, 8-0 (my wife is smiling; Joe Queenan is gritting his teeth). What does an opening day win portend? Evidently, for the Mets, not much. They hold the best record in the Majors for opening day, 35-19; their seasonal successes have been far fewer. But, as someone (my Tampa homeboy Tony La Russa?) said, "A win in April counts as much as a win in October."

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Handel: Disserrvateri porte d'averno from La Resurrezione, HMV 147.

This performance is by the Collegium 1704 Prague Baroque Orchestra & Vocal Ensemble, under the direction of Vaclav Luks. The soloist is mezzo soprano Hana Blažíková, who sings the part of the Angel. This aria immediately follows the overture. A comment on the YouTube page gives this translation:
Doors of Avern [hell], open yourself! And be the dread all melted in flares, in front of the good light of an eternal God! Give way, dreadful doors, give way in front of the King of Glory, whose victory you are the first [to] honour!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

TBT: "Leader of the Laundromat" by the Detergents.

The news that coin operated laundromats are disappearing from New York, victims of ever-rising rents for commercial space and of services that will pick up, wash, and deliver your laundry, in the words of the linked Crain's story, "at the touch of an app," made me remember "Leader of the Laundromat" (1964), a spoof of the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack", a number one hit that year.

The Detergents were Ron Dante, Danny Jordan, and Tommy Wynn, who were songwriters and session musicians for Aldon Music. The co-owner of Aldon, along with Al Nevins, was Don Kirshner, known for having launched the careers of Bobby Darin, Neil Diamond, and Kansas, among others, as well as having supplied songs for the Monkees.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My movie career acquired by Yale's Sterling Memorial Library.

Thanks to John Lee, who was part of the superb technical crew that worked on the movie, I've learned that "Toxic Zombies," a.k.a. "Bloodeaters," a.k.a. "Forest of Fear," a.k.a. Il ritorno degli zombi, in which I play a small part, is one of 2,700 movies on VHS tape acquired by Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, according to this Yale Daily News story. The story mentions "Toxic Zombies" at the outset, evidently because of its gory title--also mentioned are "Silent Night, Deadly Night" and "Buried Alive"--but without mention (until my comment below the story) that its writer, producer, director, and star was a Yale Law School alumnus, my late friend (he was in his office on the 100th floor of One World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001) Charlie McCrann. You can read more about the making of "Toxic Zombies," and find links to a trailer and some reviews, here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TBT: The Left Banke, "Walk Away Renee"; RIP Michael Brown.

"Walk Away Renée, by The Left Banke was a hit for this previously unknown New York group in 1966, rising to number five on the pop charts. The lyrics are by then sixteen year old, Brooklyn born and raised Michael Brown (born Michael Lookofsky), who died last week (on my birthday) at the now tender age of 65.

Brown was the keyboardist for the band; on this he plays harpsichord, not a usual rock instrument. His father was a classical and jazz pianist, and he had classical training. His father produced this song and other Left Banke cuts.

"Walk Away Renée" has been covered many times, most memorably by Motown legends The Four Tops, who took it to number fourteen in 1969, and most recently by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mets 6, Yankees 0; a good sign?

Yes, it was a spring training game, and therefore meaningless. Well, unfortunately for the Yanks, perhaps not. One of their prospects, Jose Pirela, suffered a concussion when he crashed into the outfield wall trying to catch a long ball off the bat of Juan Lagares (photo) on the first play of the game. Indications are that Pirela was not seriously injured, but he'll be sidelined for a while.

Meanwhile, we Mets fans can take comfort in Matt Harvey's having pitched six strong, scoreless innings, and in the bullpen's having held firm for the remaining three. Just before spring exhibition games began, I expressed my anxiety about the coming season. My nervousness was quickly confirmed by a double whammy: both starter Zack Wheeler and lefty reliever Josh Edgin will need Tommy John surgery and are out for the duration. Fortunately, the Mets have kept Dillon Gee, a starter with decent stats over his past five seasons. Losing Edgin may be more problematic, as there is no left handed depth in the bullpen. Perhaps Steven Matz, a potential starter in the longer term, could be called up to fill in.

Tyler Kepner, in the Times, rains on the Mets' parade a bit by noting their weaknesses in the bullpen and on defense, where Lagares is the one bright new player. Reader "Stuart," commenting on Kepner's story, says:
I simply don't understand how the Mets can take 6 years to patiently build a young starting pitching staff and then surround them with mediocre fielding. Bringing in the fences doesn't exactly go along with a team built around good pitching either.
Perhaps reliance on aging players like Curtis Granderson and the newly acquired Michael Cuddyer reflects a belief that it's home runs, not spectacular catches or well turned double plays, that brings in the crowds. The Mets did show some offensive prowess in the game against the Yanks, with David Wright and Lucas Duda, along with Lagares, all getting homers off Sabathia. The defense got tagged for one error, but was otherwise effective.

I may eat my words later, but for now I'm guardedly optimistic.

Addendum: Eliot Wagner sends me "All Future and No Past," a spring training anthem from The Baseball Project (Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck, and Scott McCaughey). Here 'tis:

No mention of the Mets, or the Yanks (although one shot of Scott McCaughey wearing a Yankees jersey), or of the Red Sox. I do like it, though, that they mention the 2008 Rays.

Juan Lagares photo: Standing O Sports.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coney Island Brewing's "1609 Amber Ale."

Coney Island Brewing Company's "1609 Amber Ale" takes its name from the year Europeans first set foot on what we now know as Coney Island. I paired it with a "Smokin' Henry" (smoked turkey, Black Forest ham, smoked Cheddar, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and Russian dressing) from Lassen & Hennigs.

Here are my tasting notes:

Color: bright amber.

Head: moderate, stood up well.

Aroma: banana and peach, with a toasty malt undertone.

Flavor: good balance of fruit and malt flavors, with a hop finish that's satisfying but not overwhelming.

Technical details (from the brewery's website):  There are five kinds of malt used. Along with the usual two row barley, there are carapils and caramunich, melanoidin, and chocolate malt. The hops are Cascade, Amarillo, Tettnang, and Northern Brewer. ABV is a moderate 4.8%.

This is a well made, satisfying ale that complemented a tasty sandwich but could be enjoyed by itself. The flavor is complex but well balanced.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

TBT: Etta James, "Tell Mama."

We're back to 1967, when Etta James went to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and recorded "Tell Mama," a superb example of pedal-to-the-metal R&B that she co-wrote with Clarence Carter. "Tell Mama" charted at 23 on the pop and ten on the R&B chart.

James had a versatile contralto voice that, during the course of an over fifty year career, was applied to R&B, doo wop, blues, pop, jazz, and rock, while showing gospel influences. She died in 2012 at the age of 73. She is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Three Irish tunes by the Boston Pops

The Boston Pops Orchestra, under the direction of Keith Lockhart, plays three traditional Irish tunes:"The Cat Rambles to the Children's Saucepan"; The Otter's Nest"; and "Richie Dwyer's." Thanks to WQXR.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney

When I was in Mrs. Blalock's 12th grade English class at Robinson High School in Tampa, I was required to give a book report every six weeks. Mrs. Blalock said students must begin each report by saying why they had read the book. With a tip of the hat to my still loved though long deceased teacher, I'll begin this with a disclosure: I read this novel in part because the author is the daughter of a friend, neighbor, and fellow Grace Church parishioner. "In part" because another reason for my reading it is that it's set in the neighborhood I've called home for the last almost 32 years, Brooklyn Heights, though at a time long before I came here; indeed partly before I was born.

The story begins on VJ Day, August 14, 1945 (this is the date Japan's unconditional surrender was announced in the U.S.; Japan did not sign surrender documents until September 3, which is now the official VJ Day). Wally Baker and her mother, Stella Wallace Baker (Wally's full name is Beatrice Wallace Baker) go out into the pandemonium filling even the streets of staid Brooklyn Heights. Stella is taking Wally to the nearby house of Stella's parents, Waldo and Gigi, who are both physicians, as is Stella. As the day progresses, we are introduced to Waldo's and Gigi's housekeeper, Loretta Walker, an African American woman who also serves as Wally's caretaker, and to Wally's closest friend, Ham, who is Loretta's son. We are also, in conversation, made aware of William Niederman, a PhD in mathematics and the college roommate of Stella's husband and Wally's father, Rudy, who, at Rudy's urging by telegram from the South Pacific, becomes a boarder in the spare bedroom of Stella's and Wally's apartment "for the duration." The duration is now over, Bill Niederman will be returning to his family in New Jersey and Rudy will be coming home to his wife and daughter,

As VJ day draws to a close, Loretta and Wally arrive at Stella's apartment a little later than planned; there they find Stella dead on the kitchen floor, a suicide.

From this beginning, the story takes us from Wally's girlhood to young womanhood and, at the close, motherhood. It is a bildungsroman, or novel of growth, but also a todtsroman. It is punctuated by deaths--Stella's, as well as the death of her first love and fiancé, who is killed by a log falling from a truck as they travel to his parents' summer house, which sets the stage for Stella's later, at first reluctant, marriage to Rudy; of Wally's younger brother Georgie, who succumbs to whooping cough because no penicillin is available, it having been sent overseas for the troops; of Waldo and Gigi; and of an ant queen. It is also shadowed by the fear of death--of Rudy's, when he is with the Navy in the South Pacific, and of Ham's, when he enlists in the Army and is sent to Korea. At its close, though, it is a novel of life. Its ending, like that of Peter Wheelwright's As It Is On Earth, brought to my mind the final sentence of Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "Be fruitful and multiply."

Life, both natural, in the form of ants, and imaginary, in the guise of Wonder Woman, pervades the narrative of Wally's growth and maturation. Ham becomes interested in the ant colonies he found in Waldo's and Gigi's back yard, and collects some to form a captive colony inside a fish tank. He communicates his enthusiasm to Wally, who does the same. Gigi takes Ham and Wally to the Museum of Natural History and introduces them to Vernon Somersby, an entomology curator. Somersby is impressed and offers them regular tutelage. He gets Wally onto a team of researchers who are studying how ants communicate, and she makes an important discovery.

Communication, or the lack of it, is the major theme of the novel. Wally regards Stella, who is reticent about her life away from Wally, as a mystery. Bill Niederman is a mysterious figure, engaged in secret war work. A failure of communication between him and Stella, once rectified, sets the action going. Ham is infuriated by Loretta's late disclosure of his true parentage. Wally is grateful for RADAR (always in all caps), a form of communication of which the initial recipient is unaware but which reveals the recipient's location to the sender, for keeping her father alive in the war. There's even a discussion, by Bill Niederman after he returns to teaching math at Rutgers, of the "Traveling Salesman Problem," which has to do with establishing the most efficient routes of travel or communication.

Wally is a fan of Wonder Woman, perhaps in part because she wonders about her mother, who is something of a wonder. Some time before Stella's death, when her mother is away, Wally goes into her bedroom and finds, in a box under the bed, "the most remarkable costume [she] had ever seen." There is a blue sequined cape on which were "long silver triangles plunging from shoulder to hem, like daggers." Its lining is "electric-blue silk with blood red piping." Under it is
a matching dress, short with a sequined bodice and more of those spangly silver daggers on a blue field. Under the dress lay a blue and silver headband and a pair of silver high-heeled booties. It was the costume Wally would have conceived for her mother, if her mother was a superhero.
What clinches it is that Wally sees, embroidered in the lining of the cape, Stella's maiden initials: "S.W."
Worlds opened up in Wally's mind like accordion folds. Long-standing conundrums sorted themselves out.... All those days and nights she was away, too busy for Wally--she'd been striving to make the world safe for her daughter. And the sense of withholding that Wally had sometimes felt, the sense that her mother was keeping something from her, all that made sense now, too....She was Stella Wallace Baker by the light of day, and the Silver Wonder, a shining streak of justice, by night.
My fellow Brooklyn Heights residents will find some interesting history here. Jim Crow was not absent from our neighborhood, as we see when Wally and Ham go to swim in the St. George Hotel's Olympic size poll, and the woman at the entrance directs Ham to the "colored changing area." Ham endures a severe beating when he and Wally go down to the still active docks below the Heights and a longshoreman takes offense at his being there with a white girl. Finally, we get to see what it was like for those living on Columbia Heights--including Waldo and Gigi--when Robert Moses' "Brooklyn and Queens Connecting Highway" (now the BQE) takes away a large chunk of their back yards.

When the World Was Young is published by Random House, New York (2014).

Thursday, March 12, 2015

TBT: Neil Sedaka, "Stairway to Heaven"

Long before there was Led Zeppelin, even before there were Yardbirds, there was Neil Sedaka. Brooklyn born and raised (his father was a cab driver) and trained to play classical piano in Julliard's preparatory school program, Sedaka found his true love in pop music as a teenager. He and lyricist Howard Greenfield, a boyhood friend, became one of the songwriting teams--along with Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman--who had offices in the Brill Building, a 1931 vintage office building at Broadway and 49th Street with an elaborate art deco entrance (photo). Producers Don Kirshner, George "Shadow" Morton, and Phil Spector also had offices there.
Sedaka, like Carole King, was a singer as well as a songwriter. His recording career began in 1957 with "Laura Lee" on the Decca label. His first song to chart was "The Diary," on RCA, for which he continued to record through the remainder of the 1950s and '60s. He cracked the top ten in 1959 with "Oh! Carol," which made it to number nine. In the summer of 1960 "Stairway to Heaven," which apart from its title bears no relationship to the later Led Zeppelin hit, also reached nine on the hit parade.

I remember "Stairway" fondly because it was one of the songs that I heard many times on the car radio, along with Roy Orbison's enthralling "Only the Lonely," the Hollywood Argyles' hilarious "Alley Oop," and Ray Peterson's bathetic "Tell Laura I Love Her," when my parents and I went from Tampa to visit my mother's relatives in Pennsylvania and my father's in Indiana during the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years. I always enjoyed these road trips, and music I heard on them got engraved on my memory. An intriguing feature of "Stairway" is the rising "Bwaaaaah!" sound at the end of each chorus. The musicians credited on the song include Irving Faberman on timpani; this sound is likely produced by pedaling the drum. There's also a sax bridge by the then almost ubiquitous King Curtis.

Sedaka continued to have hits for RCA through 1961 and '62, when he reached the top of the chart with "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." His slow ballad version of that song, released on the Rocket label, reached number eight in 1975, but topped the "easy listening" chart, giving Sedaka the distinction of being the only artist to have topped charts twice with different versions of the same song.

Neil Sedaka will celebrate his 76th birthday tomorrow, March 13, 2015.

Brill Building photo: San Francisco Public Library.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Coney Island Brewing's new "Overpass IPA" compared to its "Seas the Day" IPL.

Coney Island Brewing Company recently released a new brew, Overpass IPA. Why "Overpass" and why the elephant on the label? The overpass in question is the Brooklyn side overpass of the Manhattan Bridge as it descends toward earth a ways inland, and the elephant is because the artists who years ago settled into lofts in the formerly industrial neighborhood beneath and around this overpass called it "DUMBO" for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass." Alas, those artists, other than those who became successful enough to pay ever increasing rents or to buy, have since been banished, as New York's Bohemia is forced farther and farther afield by the inexorble workings of the real estate market.

Last year Coney Island Brewing released "Seas the Day India Pale Lager," which I tasted and reviewed. Having gotten Overpass, their first India Pale Ale, I couldn't resist sampling them side by side (see photo above). The first thing that struck me is that, contrary to my expectation, the lager (on the left) is a deeper amber color than the IPA. Please don't conclude from the photo that the lager produces a much more ample head. Before I poured the brews, I accidentally knocked over the lager bottle, which made it very fizzy. The IPA produced a full, foamy head which had largely collapsed by the time that on the lager had declined to the point where I could finish pouring it. As I did when I reviewed Seas the Day, I paired both brews with a spicy Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich from Hanco's.

Before this tasting, I tried the Overpass IPA by itself. My notes were: aroma--hops predominate, with floral undertones; flavor: hop bitterness dominant throughout. When I gave my wife a sip, though, her reaction was "Malty!" As the ale warmed in the glass, I got more malt flavor.

For this tasting I let both brews sit on the table for a while so that, when I poured, they were not too far below room temperature. This time I noticed malt flavor at the start in both brews, although the hop bitterness seemed more pronounced at the finish in the lager than in the ale. As it got warmer, the IPA seemed almost toasty. But as I ate the spicy sandwich, I noticed the hop flavor in the ale becoming more pronounced again. The principal difference between the IPA and the IPL was that the latter had more pronounced fruit overtones. This seems odd given that the hop mixture in the IPA includes two varieties--Centennial and Nelson-Sauvin, that are not used in the lager and are said to impart fruit flavors.

I find the Overpass IPA a fine, well crafted example of the style; one that, if not served too chilled, has excellent hop-malt balance. Of the two, I think the Seas the Day IPL is more interesting; but why wouldn't an unusual brew like an India Pale Lager be so?

Coney Island Brewing has also recently released a 1609 Amber Ale, 1609 being the year Europeans first set foot on what is now Coney Island. I have a bottle, and will be reviewing it soon.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

It's International Women's Day: here's Aretha Franklin's "Respect"

This could've been another TBT--like my previous ones it's from the "Summer of Love" year 1967--but today, March 8, is International Women's Day, and this song seems especially appropriate for the occasion. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

TBT: Procol Harum, "Repent Walpurgis."

We're staying in the magic year 1967 this Thursday. Procol Harum, a band named for a cat, had a huge hit that summer with "A Whiter Shade of Pale", with a J.S. Bach inspired melody by Gary Brooker, played on Hammond organ by Matthew Fisher (Fisher would later successfully sue Brooker for partial credit for the music), and surrealistic lyrics by Keith Reid, listed on their album jackets as a band member with the designation "poet."

Procol Harum's follow-up to "Whiter" was a song called "Homburg", but for a while WRKO, the Boston AM top forty station I had on my clock radio (yes, sometimes that fall I was awakened by the Strawberry Alarm Clock) was playing an instrumental with the title "Repent Walpurgis." When I first heard a DJ announce it, I thought he said, "Repent While Purchase," which made no sense, even in Procol Harum's psychedelic terms. I learned the true title when I bought the group's eponymous first album, on which it's the final cut. I knew that the eve of May Day is sometimes called "Walpurgis Night," but I wasn't sure who Walpurgis was. It turns out that the event is named for Saint Walpurga, an English born nun who became an abbess in Germany and was later canonized.

Like the melody for "A Whiter Shade of Pale," that of "Repent Walpurgis," composed by Matthew Fisher, is influenced by J.S. Bach (as is Garth Hudson's organ intro to The Band's "Chest Fever"), and also by the French organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Why I'm worrying about the Mets already.

The Mets are in camp; they've yet to play a spring training game. That comes Friday Thursday, against the Tigers Braves (Update: the Mets won, 8-2). Signs are good: Matt Harvey can throw well following Tommy John surgery; David Wright is healthy (at least for now); everything else seems to be in good order. So, first, why do I have a photo of Babe Ruth, a Yankees hero, although I managed to find a 1916 shot of him in a Red Sox uniform? More about that below.

Truth is, I got nervous when I read this New York Times story. Anything that indicates the Mets are doing something other than concentrating on playing baseball, especially if it smacks of premature triumphalism, puts me on edge. Sort of like Darryl Strawberry's rap "Chocolate Strawberry." recorded and released in 1987, just as the Mets were beginning their as yet interminable decline from their 1986 championship.

And the Babe? Thinking about players' publicity appearances brought to mind a story I read some years ago. It was 1942, and everything had to be about the War Effort. The Babe was to be interviewed on Grantland Rice's radio show, so one of the questions was how sports could contribute to that effort. Rice had scripted an answer; "Well, Granny, as the Duke of Wellington said, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." This was rehearsed several times until it seemed Ruth had it down pat, but when the show went live, he said, "Well, Granny, as Duke Ellington said, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Elkton." Asked afterward why the deviation from script, Ruth said he didn't know Wellington but did know Ellington, and while he'd never been to Eton, he married his first wife in Elkton, and would never forget that place.

Update: already the intra-squad sniping has begun.

Babe Ruth photo: Culver Images via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

TBT: The Parliaments, "(I Just Wanna) Testify."

I seem to be stuck in my law school years in these TBTs so far, but heck, this was the whole "Summer of Love" to Woodstock era. The Parliaments (photo) were George Clinton's pre-Parliament/Funkadelic group. This gospel-rooted number sent chills down my spine when I heard it on Boston's WRKO in the fall of 1967.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

TBT: The Candymen, "Georgia Pines," featuring Rodney Justo

Like last week's TBT, this is a memory from my law school years; this one from the spring of 1968, when I was a first year law student and, as a transplant from Florida to Massachusetts, experiencing my first real spring since I was a child. I had spring fever bad, which wasn't helping me concentrate on my studies. Many nights I stayed up late, trying to catch up on assignments and prepare for exams, and would always have WBCN, Boston's first "underground" FM rock station, playing.

Probably because of my emotional state at the time, music I heard often got engraved on my memory. One night the DJ announced what he said was an example of  "Southern white soul," a song called "Georgia Pines" by a group I'd never heard of called the Candymen. He also  mentioned that the singer's name was Rodney Justo. The video clip below shows the Candymen performing "Georgia Pines" at Greenwich Village's famous, and still extant, music venue The Bitter End in 1967:

Despite "Candymen" and "Rodney Justo" sticking in my memory, I didn't follow them at the time. WBCN didn't play the song again, at least not when I was listening, and no Candymen albums showed up in the record bins at the Harvard Coop. My principal musical interests at the time were the harder edged British Invasion groups--the Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds--along with Dylan and the country-tinged rock of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. From the last two I developed passions for, respectively, the "Cosmic American Music" of Gram Parsons and the protean Neil Young.

A few years ago I became Facebook friends with someone I had known in Tampa during my youth, and saw that one of that person's other friends was a "Rodney Justo." "Could it be?" I thought. I went to Rodney's Facebook page and--sho' nuff! It turned out we had both lived in Tampa and went to rival, though not arch-rival, high schools (I to Robinson; he to Chamberlain). Although I had never met him. I sent a friend request, which he graciously accepted. I learned that, before the Candymen, he had led a group called Rodney and the Mystics, which triggered a vague memory, as I'd probably heard of them during my Tampa years (they shouldn't be confused with the Mystics who had the 1959 hit "Hushabye; those Mystics came from what is now my adopted home, Brooklyn).  What I didn't know was that Rodney and the Mystics became the go-to backup band for many established rock stars. Roy Orbison asked Justo to join his backup group, called the Candymen as a reference to Orbison's song "Candy Man".  Although their principal commitment was to Orbison, the Candymen also recorded and performed on their own; witness "Georgia Pines."

After the Candymen, Justo became a founding member of  Atlanta Rhythm Section; the photo at the top of this post is of him while he was with ARS. The video clip below is of a reunited ARS performing "Doraville" live sometime in the not-too-distant past; Justo is the lead singer.

Some years ago Justo left the full time music world and took a job with a beverage distributor because he decided it was more important to be a  successful father than a successful musician. Nevertheless, he still does gigs with Coo Coo Ca Choo, a '60s-'70s revival band, in the Tampa area.