MUSIC

Understanding life via three-minute pop songs

Rescued at the Christmas concert

Go_Tell_it_on_The_Mountain

As published in The Providence Journal, December 17, 2017.

The Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School Choir, of which I was a member, had just finished a rousing version of “Jingle Bells” when my heart started pounding. The moment I was dreading had finally arrived.

We were a bunch of Providence kids in our school’s gymnasium, where I had performed many times before, but as a point guard on Kennedy’s youth basketball team, not as a soloist at the annual Christmas concert.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was originally paired with another fifth-grader to sing a duet of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the popular spiritual celebrating the birth of Jesus. But on the day of the concert, my fellow caroler was home with the flu.

My mind raced upon hearing the news in the schoolyard, and not to good places. I had to sing alone? What if I forgot the words to the verse my friend, the better singer, was to have sung? Or worse, what if I opened my mouth and nothing came out?

I had been selected for the choir two years earlier after being summoned, along with my third-grade classmates, to the music room in the school basement. Each of us sang a line or two from “Oh Susanna” as the choir director accompanied us on the piano. With her cat-eye glasses, muted floral dresses, and white pearls, she reminded me of my Italian grandmother. Apparently, my voice was OK; I passed the audition.

I loved to sing, especially to Beatles tunes, which I played on the hi-fi in our living room at home. However, being part of the school choir was anything but fun. Unlike my beloved grandmother, the choir director was stern and impatient; a flubbed lyric or missed beat elicited her immediate rebuke. It was only at the bi-annual concerts for our parents – one before Christmas and one in the spring – that we saw her smile.

Then, when I reached fifth grade, everything changed. Our drill-sergeant choir leader retired and was replaced by an engaging new director who wore cuffed bell-bottoms and bright scarves in her hair. At our first practice, she handed out percussion instruments for all of us to play. On another day, she spun Smokey Robinson’s pop hit “The Tears of a Clown” on her phonograph. Even better, she invited us to dance, and as we did, I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl I had a crush on.

Smokey’s voice was a distant echo as I made my way off the choral riser at the Christmas concert to perform my unplanned solo. I listened to my new choir director’s piano vamp, and then I began to sing:

“When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day. I asked the Lord to help me …”

Unfortunately, the Lord wasn’t much help that night; in the cavernous gym, my voice sounded as thin as a reed, and my neck muscles were taut, like cello strings. I thought I was going to faint – and then Christmas came early.

When I reached the chorus – “Go tell it on the mountain …” – I heard a low, rich voice behind me, welcome as a life raft. As I warbled on – “over the hills and everywhere …” I looked over to the piano. My choir director’s eyes were closed and her head was tilted back slightly, like she was singing to heaven. Her assured alto calmed me. In the second verse, I sang with more confidence. And when she syncopated a lyric as we repeated the chorus together, I felt the spark of her improvisation. At the song’s end, everyone clapped, and I took an awkward, happy bow.

Whenever I hear “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” it brings me back to a packed gymnasium at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School; to a hip and gifted choir director; and to my mountaintop moment as a singer – the first and only one.

I really should have thanked my friend for getting the flu.

Still connected and still beautiful

IMG_4455

As published in The Providence Journal, November 19, 2017.

It would be a bicoastal celebration – Massachusetts and California – with the first part just up the road in Boston. Deb and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel to begin our anniversary getaway, and there was an immediate hiccup. The twentysomething desk clerk informed us that our room had twin beds.

“That’s what happens with Groupon,” she added apologetically, her eyes fixed on her screen.

“We’ve been married for 30 years,” I said. “Doesn’t that at least merit a double?” I made a joke about Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but only Deb laughed.

After tapping her keyboard with rapid-fire efficiency, the clerk told us she’d be happy to switch our room. She was also giving us free Wi-Fi.

That’s what three decades of marriage get you – free Internet access.

Deb and I were 24 when she peeked into my cubicle at the ad agency where we both worked. I was smitten by her easy laugh and the freckle on her lower lip. We shared a love of Talking Heads songs and Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of which we chose for a reading at our wedding ceremony three years later:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments …”

Our early days were carefree and fun, with Deb’s outgoing personality balancing my introversion. When we went on weekend jaunts to Cape Cod, I wrote out the driving directions beforehand, while Deb struck up conversations with strangers along the way. Soon we had new friends.

Three children came in quick succession. Ours was a boisterous and happy house, with preschool artwork on the refrigerator, toys on the floor, and a sweet dog at the foot of someone’s bed each night.

When people asked how we managed the almost-constant commotion, Deb and I paraphrased a David Byrne lyric: “We’re making it up as we go along.”

But as years passed, we weren’t always in tune – about finances, about career paths, and, more distressingly, about what we wanted from one another. With increasing frequency, we got tripped up by the “impediments” we had so glibly dismissed on our wedding day. Our relationship had less spark and more friction, and our 20th anniversary passed with little fanfare.

When Deb suggested we “see someone,” as in a marriage counselor, all I heard was “failure.” When she said we needed help to figure things out, I countered that we’d work harder. Or I said nothing at all. It would be a year before I agreed to go with her to our first appointment.

The twice-a-month sessions surprised me, as did an early observation by our counselor: “You made progress just by coming here,” she said. “You both still care.”

Deb and I began to see how, for all our compatibility, we came from very different places. My grandparents were Italian and Irish immigrants; Deb’s roots went back to the American Revolution. My mother and father divorced before I was 10; Deb’s family had vacationed together in Florida and out West. My actions were usually premeditated; my wife lived in the moment. The list went on. Our marriage would either reconcile the gaps or accentuate the distance.

Couples therapy didn’t erase our differences, but it did lead us to new conversations and a renewed faith in one another. Eventually, we had the confidence to go it alone again.

Three months after Deb and I wed, Bruce Springsteen released “Tunnel of Love,” a 12-song meditation on relationships and marriage. On the title track, the Boss sings “it’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love.” It’s my favorite Springsteen album; Deb’s, too.

On the Californian segment of our anniversary trip, we were drawn not to a tunnel, but to a bridge – the Bixby Creek Bridge, which traverses 714 feet over a steep canyon in Big Sur, audacious as a nuptial vow. Later, martinis in hand, Deb and I marveled at the iconic concrete span – still connected and still beautiful despite (or perhaps because of) its nicks and wear.

We could have been toasting ourselves.

Dreams from my own la la land

jw_lsa_bball001-rw1The author drives to the basket in a game between La Salle and Central at Rhode Island Junior College, now the Community College of Rhode Island, in February 1978. Providence Journal file photo. Column published in the Providence Journal, January 15, 2017.

Lying on my side at 6:30 a.m., I look out my bedroom window at a tangle of tree branches against the gray dawn sky before surrendering to the bliss of an REM slumber – and, it turns out, a few special moments at the TD Garden.

In my dream, I am playing basketball for the Boston Celtics. Fifty-six years old, 5 feet 8 inches, and on my game, I deliver a no-look pass to Al Horford for a slam dunk, drop a three-point bomb with Steph Curry in my face, and streak on a breakaway after picking Kevin Durant’s pocket.

But then, as often happens in my dreams, everything goes slo-mo. My legs turn to rubber, and I feel like I am hefting an orange wrecking ball to the hoop. My layup caroms off the side of the rim, as does my put-back attempt. I try again – and, bizarrely, the ball morphs into an unopened bag of Light ‘n Fluffy egg noodles that drops softly through the net just as the horn sounds. The crowd goes berserk. I pump my fist – in my dream and, apparently, in my bed because suddenly I am awake.

“You O.K.?” my wife, Deb, asks, lying next to me. I notice the morning sky has brightened.

“Never been better,” I say, laughing.

My dreams are rarely so triumphant. More often, I am like Danny in the movie “The Shining,” running away from an ax-wielding madman. Or I am roaming the hallways at La Salle Academy, trying to locate – without success – the classroom for an exam I must pass to get my high school diploma.

The word “dream” possesses an interesting duality. On one hand, it describes the images and emotions passing through our minds as we sleep – from the ordinary to the outlandish. On the other, it references our goals and aspirations when we are awake.

“Dream” derives from the Old English verb “dremen,” which meant “rejoice; play music.” That makes sense when you consider how often the topic has been mined in popular song – from Arlen and Mercer’s “This Time The Dream’s On Me” to Wilco’s “(Was I) In Your Dreams?” A 60s pop band from Britain went one step further, calling themselves Freddie and the Dreamers.

In the charming movie musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s character, Mia, sings about her inspiration for becoming an actress – a beloved aunt who once leapt without looking into a freezing Seine River: “She captured a feeling, sky without ceiling, sunset inside a frame … Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”

Dreams usually leave us questioning what prompted them. Freud famously said they were the fulfillment of a wish. Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” had a more physiologic explanation for the ghostly visit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”

I subscribe to Freud’s theory to explain my Celtics dream. As a 12-year-old, I spent hours in my basement mimicking Pete Maravich’s dribbling wizardry. I fantasized about making it to the NBA, despite my woeful shooting mechanics and less-than-promising genetics – Mom was 5 feet 1 inch and Dad was 5 feet 7 inches.

“You can’t bounce balls all your life,” my mother said one day when I came upstairs. Sure enough, six years later, after two or three tryouts for the team at Brown, the buzzer sounded on my basketball dreams.

Recently, sleep brought me more REM absurdities: I’m on a cruise – actually, the Block Island Ferry – and Bruce Springsteen is performing on the top deck. But I’m stuck in steerage, like Jack Dawson in “Titanic.” I finally sneak my way upstairs and catch a glimpse of the Boss and the E Street Band before being whisked away by a bouncer. I trip, and now I’m falling overboard in slo-mo …

I awake with a start beneath a sea of covers, and the spirits in the night are gone.

Under the spell of pinball wizards

Tommy_Album-CMYKAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 24, 2016.

My brother Rob and I watched with envy as a white-haired man waved his metal detector over the fine sand, like a wizard with a wand. Rob was 12 years old and I was 9. It was early evening in July, and we were standing at the boardwalk rail in the shadow of the stone pavilion at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett.

“I wish we had one of those,” I said, referring to the white-haired prospector’s treasure-finding device.

“Beats our technique,” Rob replied.

He was referring to our practice of combing the beach for money with the only detectors we possessed: our eyes. When we were lucky, we’d glimpse an occasional nickel or dime amid sand-crusted Popsicle sticks and pieces of dried seaweed.

Not on this night, though. With empty pockets, Rob and I started back to our grandfather’s cottage just up the road — until I stopped at a pay phone outside the pavilion to fish the coin return slot. To my surprise, a forgotten dime slid beneath my finger.

“Score!” I said.

“No way!” Rob said.

We headed directly to Adam’s, the variety store and arcade across from the beach, to indulge my latest obsession: pinball. In 1969, the zinging, jangling games were in their heyday. The Who had even released a rock opera earlier that year telling the story of a pinball wizard named Tommy.

But not everyone was enamored with the electromechanical precursor to modern video games. Though rarely enforced, laws banning pinball were still on the books throughout much of the United States. Before the introduction of flippers — the levers that give players a measure of control over the ball — many had believed the machines promoted gambling because they were games of chance, not skill. In New York City in the 1940s, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia crusaded against pinball, saying it robbed schoolchildren of their lunch money.

No such prohibition was in effect in Rhode Island in the late 1960s — at least not at Adam’s. And the nightly scene in the arcade dispelled any notion that pinball was merely a game of chance. The brightly lit, cacophonous room drew would-be pinball wizards from Point Judith to Narragansett Pier and beyond. My older cousin David was among the best players. He had, to borrow Pete Townshend’s words, “crazy flipper fingers,” and I marveled at his ability to nudge or bump a machine to his advantage without tilting and suspending play.

The most popular game at Adam’s was Hayburners, and when David dropped a dime in its coin slot, kids gathered around to watch. It was only a matter of time before the machine’s clicking digits rolled past the free replay mark, sounding the sharp, distinctive knock that every pinballer coveted.

I waited for the crowd to thin before placing my dime on Hayburners’ glass to reserve the next game. Unlike The Who’s Tommy, I rarely played “a mean pinball,” and figured the fewer the onlookers, the better.

But a funny thing happened on this particular night: I found the magic touch. I finessed shots to high-scoring rollovers. I hit targets again and again. I made deft flipper saves to maintain play.

“Only 100 points to a free game!” Rob said, as I launched my final ball.

It would have been my first time. Heart pounding, I made another flipper save. The ball ricocheted from a rubber kicker to a slingshot pad, then arced toward the right-hand out lane. I was a split second away from seeing my dream vanish — if the ball continued on its path, the game would end!

Instinctively, I gave the machine a hard sideways jerk. Hayburners instantly went dark — I had tilted. The ball rolled over my lifeless flipper and disappeared.

“You were so close,” Rob said, making the knot in my stomach clench tighter.

Someday I’d be a pinball wizard, I told myself as we walked home to Papa’s beach house. I just needed more practice — more dimes.

Early the next morning, my brother and I scoured the beach for coins.

Confessions of a lifelong Beatlemaniac

As appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2016.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million Americans who watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up too.

Later that year, as my mother prepared our family’s traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve, my older brother, Rob, and I sat on the living room floor listening to Meet The Beatles! on a portable record player. My grandfather, who lived upstairs in our Providence double-decker, walked in from the kitchen.

“Where’s the Christmas music?” he said, pointing his smoldering Dutch Masters cigar at the spinning vinyl.

“Papa,” Rob said. “It’s the Beatles!”

My brother shot me a knowing look. Listening to anything else — even “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve — was out of the question.

The following June, my mother gave each of us a crisp one-dollar bill at the start of our vacation in Narragansett.

“That’s for the whole week,” she said. “Make it last.”

Less than an hour later, Rob handed his dollar to the cashier at Adam’s variety store in exchange for 20 five-cent packs of Beatles cards. I stood at the counter, eyebrows raised.

The cards featured stylish black-and-white photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and facsimiles of their autographs. I was aghast at the instant evaporation of my brother’s allowance. But as we flipped through the images again and again, the payoff began to dawn on me. The cards reaffirmed what we had felt the first time we heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: the Beatles were cool and, by extension, so were we.

That afternoon, ignoring my frugality for a moment, I slid a dime into the jukebox on the boardwalk at Scarborough Beach and played the Fab Four’s latest chart-topper, “Ticket to Ride.”

Their hits kept coming: “Help!” in July; “Yesterday” in September; Rubber Soul in time for Christmas; and the remarkable Revolver eight months later.

And then, during the Summer of Love in 1967, my father brought home Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Everyone’s talking about this,” he said, handing us the Beatles’ new LP.

The cover art, with its photomontage of famous people, was unlike anything we had ever seen. “A Day In The Life,” with its rising orchestral glissandos, was unlike anything we had ever heard. And I loved that the lyrics were printed on the back cover. As the music played, I sang along.

In late September, Time magazine arrived in the mail, and the Beatles were on the cover. The story inside hailed them as “messengers beyond rock ‘n’ roll.” I didn’t understand the references to Schubert and Cole Porter, but I soaked up every word.

By then, I wanted a Beatles “mop top,” but my parents insisted on a “regular boys’ haircut.” Waiting at Lanni’s barbershop one day, I was shocked by a front-page headline: “Paul McCartney fighting lip cancer!” I reported the grim news at home. My father, a resolute introvert, howled before enlightening me about the journalism standards at the National Enquirer. Rumors of Paul’s death two years later would find me less gullible.

The Beatles charted 27 number-one songs before breaking up in 1970. People are still listening today. After going live on Spotify last December 24, Beatles tunes were streamed more than 70 million times in just three days.

Years ago, I smiled the first time I heard my daughter singing along to John Lennon’s “In My Life” in her bedroom. Juliana was a fan too.

This past Christmas, I handed her a flat, square present topped with a big red bow.

“No way!” Julie said, after stripping away the wrapping paper.

She beamed at the framed album cover – the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father had given to Rob and me back in 1967.

“And there’s a bonus,” I said. “The record’s inside.”

“My friend has a turntable,” she said. “We can play it!”

Drop the needle, Julie. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Believe it or not, superstitions endure

13

In anticipation of Halloween, a re-post of my Op-Ed piece from the Providence Sunday Journal last October.

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

Telephones, Thomas Edison, And Top 40 Tunes

I’m at a payphone trying to call home, all of my change I spent on you.  –“Payphone” by Maroon 5

When technology changes everyday life, language responds with new words to help us navigate new experiences. Thus, the history of the telephone and the greeting “hello” are intertwined.

Telephone derives from the Greek tele- “afar” + phone “voice, sound.” Imagine how much brainpower it took to make the transmission of voices over wire possible. Still, when the first telephone was unveiled in 1876, one question remained: what should people say when answering?

There were two schools of thought, led by two technology titans. Alexander Graham Bell advocated “ahoy,” while Thomas Edison thought “hello” was the answer.

“Ahoy” is a nautical term derived from the Dutch hoi, which means “hi”. “Hello” is a modern word, dating back only to the early 1800s when people shouted it to get attention. Etymological cousins include hallo, holla, hala, and hola.

The lines are scrambled on why “hello” won out over “ahoy.” According to one source, the first phone book ever published told people to answer with a “firm and cheery hulloa.” Subsequent phone books echoed this instruction, and early adopters complied. Soon, telephone operators were called “hello girls.”

We find references to the telephone, in the service of lovers and lonely hearts, in legions of Top 40 tunes:

“Telephone” (Lady Gaga): Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t wanna talk any more…

“Sylvia’s Mother” (Doctor Hook): Sylvia’s mother said Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone…

“867-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone): Jenny, don’t change your number…

“Telephone Line” (Electric Light Orchestra): I’d tell you everything, if you’d pick up that telephone…

“Hanging On The Telephone” (Blondie): If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall…

And then there’s “Hello It’s Me,” Todd Rundgren’s early ’70s smash. Edison would have loved the title, of course. And it’s a good thing his phone greeting prevailed. Somehow “Ahoy It’s Me” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Believe It or Not, Superstitions Endure

13

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal on October 19, 2014.

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall

Very superstitious, ladders ’bout to fall

Thirteen-month-old baby, broke the lookin’ glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

 

My First Bruce Gig: He Was One Of Us

Springsteen_Alumni_Hall

As published in the Providence Journal, May 17, 2014.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend, and single floor tickets are going for more than $2,000 at StubHub. That made me think of the first time I saw Bruce. As a high school junior in 1977, I scored a second row seat for his Alumni Hall show at Providence College. The ticket cost me $7.50.

I had been listening to Bruce since 1973, after a cousin gave my older brother “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” I wasn’t crazy about the album at first. But Springsteen’s voice and lines like “the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do” kept me dropping the needle. The more I listened to Innocent, the more I liked it.

And then “Born To Run” thundered onto the music scene. With its anthemic songs and romantic escapism, the album spoke to me like nothing I had heard before. Maybe it was the iconic imagery — screen doors slamming and dresses waving and Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Maybe it was the common ground I had with Bruce: Roman Catholicism, Italian ancestry, an urban upbringing in the Northeast, the beach (or shore, in his case) right down the road. Or maybe it was only rock ’n’ roll — and I liked it, liked it, yes I did.

Still, everyone told me I had to see Springsteen to get what he was all about. And, as I was about to learn that night at PC, they were right.

You could still light up in Alumni Hall then; the place was thick with cigarette smoke, and other smoke, too. The girl sitting next to me offered a joint, but fearing a scene out of “Reefer Madness,” I declined. As the lights went down, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

The opening song, “Night,” detonated with grinding guitars, pounding drums and a wailing sax. Springsteen’s hand, curled to a chord around the neck of his guitar, was instantly dripping with sweat. I had never seen a group work so hard — and this was just the first song! These weren’t some rock stars down at the Civic Center, aloof and distant from the crowd; heck, by the third song, Springsteen was in the crowd. And then I got it: Bruce was one of us.

As I walked — danced, really — four blocks home down River Avenue after the show, I reclassified every concert I had seen. There was Grand Funk, Three Dog Night, Alice Cooper and Chicago. And then there was Bruce. It wasn’t even close.

In my first year of college, I met a guy who was a big fan of Billy Joel. I told George if he liked the Piano Man, he’d love the Boss — he should give a listen. I’m glad he did.

George would soon be a rising star at WBRU, the student-run radio station at Brown. That’s how he got a backstage pass when Bruce came through Providence on The River tour in 1980. I missed the show — I was away at school in Ireland. Upon meeting Bruce, in an act of supreme generosity, George mentioned that I had turned him on to Springsteen’s music — and that I was out of the country.

A four-by-six-inch index card sits in a safe deposit box in a bank vault in East Greenwich. The scrawl on it reads: “To John, Sorry I missed ya! Thanks for spreadin’ the faith! Bruce Springsteen.”

bruce_autograph

When George gave me the autograph, I was speechless. It had all the intimacy, and the commitment, of the best Springsteen songs.

I won’t be going to see Bruce at Mohegan. My brother-in-law tried to get tickets the minute they went on sale, but the Ticketmaster gods weren’t with us.

The last time I did get to see Bruce was back in March 2003, when he played the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. It was almost 26 years to the day of my first Bruce concert.

Unlike Alumni Hall at PC 2 1/2 decades before, the Dunk was almost smoke-free and lacking in strange smells. That was a good thing: I had brought my two sons, then ages 9 and 11, and aspiring musicians themselves. When the house lights came up during the “Born To Run” encore and Clarence Clemons hit his solo (something we had blasted in the car countless times), my boys were ecstatic — transfixed and transformed.

I had kept the faith and was still spreading it.

 

109 Seconds of Beatles Brilliance

there's_a_place

There are Beatles songs more popular than “There’s A Place,” including the twenty-seven that topped the charts in both the United Kingdom and United States.

There are Beatles songs more ambitious. “A Day in the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” and the suite on the second side of Abbey Road come to mind.

But I find myself equally drawn to the second-to-last song on their debut UK album, Please Please Me, which was recorded 52 years ago today. “There’s A Place,” which I didn’t discover until the mid-1970s, is 109 seconds of Beatles brilliance.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million who watched the historic Ed Sullivan performance on February 9, 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up, too.

The following Christmas Eve, my brother Rob and I listened to Meet The Beatles while waiting for our family to have dinner with my grandfather. “Where’s the Christmas music?” he asked. “Papa, it’s the BEATLES!” we said. Our tone suggested that the thought of listening to anything else – even a yuletide chart-topper like “Silent Night” on December 24th – was absurd. Papa dragged on his cigar and walked away.

In the summer of 1965, at the start of a family vacation, my mom gave Rob and me each our $1 allowance. “That’s for the week,” she said. “Make it last.” Later that day, Rob spent all his cash all at once – ten packs of Beatles cards at 10¢ apiece. I hedged and bought five packs. Rob still has his cards stashed away in a shoe box somewhere. Turns out they were a good investment. Just look up Beatles cards on eBay.

Such were the ripples of Beatlemania. And then there was the music itself.

When you look up “rock and roll” in an online dictionary, the definition should be an audio file of the Beatles ripping through “Twist and Shout.” It was the last song the group recorded in its one-day Please Please Me session – by design, according to producer George Martin. He knew the performance would take its toll on John Lennon’s voice. Whenever I listen to “Twist and Shout,” I think of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap: THIS ONE GOES TO ELEVEN!

The first song the Beatles recorded for Please Please Me was “There’s A Place.” It has that classic early Beatles sound: the two-part harmony (Lennon low, McCartney high), the three guitars, the sweet bridge, the rumble of Ringo’s drums throughout.

But it’s the lyric that truly distinguishes the song. While the group’s eventual breakthrough hit in America would concern itself with wanting to hold hands, “There’s A Place” is more cerebral. It discusses longing to escape to a place where there is “no sorrow, no sad tomorrow.” The persona in the song finds that place in his mind, as he thinks of the girl who said to him “I love only you.” Hello, adolescence.

Two final notes on “There’s A Place” make me like the song even more. First, McCartney and Lennon were inspired by “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which was written by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyric). The song opens: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us…” My dad loved Sondheim, and he and I spent many Sunday mornings listening to the composer’s musicals over coffee. The connection between “There’s A Place” and “Somewhere” was a sweet revelation. 

Finally, it pleases me that the Beatles recorded “There’s A Place” on my birthday fifty-two years ago today. It remains a gift of pop perfection.

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