Stephen Sondheim

To my dad, with love, on Father’s Day

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2020. Above, the author as a baby with his father, Donald Walsh, and his older brother Robert.

Dad,

I wish you could stop by my house today, as you always did on Sunday mornings until the end came in 1993. I’d make a fresh pot of coffee and cue up Stephen Sondheim on an infinite jukebox we call Spotify.

Much has changed since you died.

You’d be happy to learn that your boy Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and saddened to know that another hero of yours, George Carlin, is gone.

Remember when you played Carlin’s “Class Clown” album for me as we cleaned the gray beach house in Narragansett? I think I was 13 years old. It was the first time I heard the comedian voice his take on Muhammad Ali’s defense for not going to Vietnam — “I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” Thanks for showing me, in that moment and so many others, how wordplay could be powerful, insightful and funny.

You can catch most of Carlin’s bits on a cool video-sharing platform called YouTube now.

You would have loved the internet, which hosts such things. I can see you binge-watching World War II movies, clips of Bill Russell’s old Celtics teams, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Netflix, a movie-streaming service, has your name all over it, too. I’d like to watch “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” with you, just to hear you say, once again, that the Academy blew it, that Spielberg’s masterpiece deserved the Oscar in 1983, not “Gandhi.” You always loved the underdog.

Speaking of which, the Red Sox have won the World Series four times since you’ve been gone. What in the name of Bill Lee (another hero of yours) is going on?

Championship banners aside, though, in some ways, the world hasn’t changed much at all since 1993. As I watched the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, I wished I knew more about your days as assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University in the mid-’60s. According to a cousin, you and Charlie Baldwin, Brown’s activist chaplain at the time, once spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.

You continued the work when you returned home. Mom saved the letters to the editor that you wrote, advocating for civil rights and supporting the desegregation of Providence public schools, which Robert, James and I attended.

This year, from mid-March to May 25, the op-ed pages of most newspapers were “all pandemic, all the time,” as one editor put it. But after George Floyd’s death, remarkably, COVID-19 was no longer the top story. That just shows how deeply the history and hurt of racial injustice are embedded in America’s soul.

Words spoken 52 years ago by your biggest hero, Robert F. Kennedy, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., still resonate today: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”

Your youngest grandchild, Juliana, born after you left us, marched in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Providence a few weeks ago. On the morning of the rally, I texted her a photo of you from your days at Brown and said that you would have been proud of her. If the two of you get to meet in some celestial place, I can imagine you sharing another RFK quote with her: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”

It’s hard to believe that you and I last spoke 27 years ago.

Still, every day and especially these days, you’re always with us.

Love, John

 

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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