From the string quartet on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” to finding the sonic equivalent of chanting Tibetan monks on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” George Martin – as many have already written in the wake of his death yesterday – deserved the title of “the fifth Beatle” more than anyone else.
I could say that Martin, who was 90, guided the Beatles through the bulk of their recording years together, but I then wonder how one guides the equivalent of a revolution or an earthquake? But however you want to categorize it, for much of their time as Beatles, the group told Martin how they wanted their music to sound and Martin – with huge assists from Geoff Emerick and other engineers, of course – figured out how to do that.
Sometimes, of course, it was the other way around, with one good example coming near the very start when Martin insisted that “Please Please Me” be a fast rock number instead of the ballad that John Lennon and McCartney had planned.
And sometimes, Martin’s influence on the greatest band of all time wasn’t directly involved with the sound at all: I’ve read in several places that after the disaster of the Get Back sessions and Phil Spector’s ham-handed production on the album that was eventually released as Let It Be, McCartney asked Martin if he’d work with the band and produce another album. Despite his reservations after the Get Back/Let It Be debacle, Martin agreed. And the brilliant Abbey Road was the result.
During his long career with EMI and then on his own, Martin worked, of course, with many other musicians and groups, but his name will always be linked most closely with the four young men from Liverpool whose aural visions and dreams he helped make real.
(I’ve seen a lot of good pieces online about Martin and the Beatles since yesterday. One of the best came from Justin Wm. Moyer of the Washington Post. It’s here.)
As a musical capstone to this inevitably insufficient post, I thought for moment about Sean Connery’s recitation of the lyrics to “In My Life,” a piece that closed the 1998 album Martin intended to be his last production. But I’ve offered it before, and In My Life turned out not to be the last: Martin and his son Giles remixed and combined numerous Beatles’ tunes for the soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil’s 2005 show Love.
So I poked around the shelves and found something a little more obscure: A 1968 album titled By George! Credited to George Martin & His Orchestra, it included covers of a few Beatles tunes. From that album, here’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The post below is one I wrote in 2011 about Dick Skewes. Mr. Skewes was the orchestra conductor at St. Cloud Tech High School when I was in junior high and during my first two years of high school. I played cornet for him during several summer programs and as a sophomore and junior, and he was easily one of the best and most influential teachers I ever had, helping me learn not just about music but about, among other things, preparation for performance and life both.
Dick Skewes passed on over the weekend at the age of 78, and many comments and posts on his Facebook page made it clear that he was, as I expected, similarly influential on the lives – in music and out – of many, many other students over the years.
When I noted last autumn the passing of my college mentor, E. Scott Bryce, I wrote, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve ever written since the autumn of 1975 has on it the fingerprints of E. Scott Bryce.”
Well, I can also say that every piece of music I’ve written or performed since the summer of 1967 has on it the fingerprints of Dick Skewes.
My love of classical orchestral music comes from a number of sources: My parents took me and my sister to numerous performances of the orchestra – and concert band and concert choir – at St. Cloud State when we were young. My mother and sister and I rarely missed a concert offered during my elementary and junior high years by the organization called Civic Music, which brought classical music to the St. Cloud Tech High gym/auditorium in many styles: piano soloists or duets, woodwind or brass ensembles, chamber orchestras, full orchestras and – for a few years – annual visits by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
But the most formative influence on my classical listening had to be Dick Skewes, who was the director of the St. Cloud Tech High orchestra from sometime during my junior high years until the end of my junior year in high school. I began playing cornet during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. It was three years later, as eighth grade ended, that Mr. Skewes entered my life.
My sister – three years older than I – played violin in Tech’s orchestra and she would do so in the summer orchestra program. I don’t know if the summer program was new that year or if I’d simply not noticed it before, but for about eight weeks during the summer, the St Cloud Tech orchestra would rehearse once a week – Monday evenings – and perform in a concert on the front lawn of the high school on Tuesday evenings.
And, as the summer of 1967 began, Mr. Skewes saw that the orchestra was short of trumpet/cornet players, and through my sister, extended me an invitation, which I accepted. For that summer and the next, and then for my sophomore and junior years in high school, I played trumpet parts on my cornet in Dick Skewes’ orchestra. (I do not recall an orchestra program during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, but if there was one, I played in it.)
And the music we played! Oddly, the titles of most of the works we played during the summers of 1967 and 1968 have faded, but the bulk of our programs was pulled from the work of Eastern European and Russian composers. These were pieces filled with heroic and tragic melodies, music that to this day for me personifies the Slavic soul. Among the pieces I recall from those first two summers in orchestra are an adaptation of Mussorgsky’s work for piano, “The Great Gate of Kiev” and one of the Slavonic dances by Antonín Dvořák.
In 1968, I moved the eight or so blocks from South Junior High to Tech High School and joined the Tech orchestra as a permanent member. And Mr. Skewes continued to challenge us with the music he selected for us, much of it again by Eastern European and Russian composers. Here’s a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic of the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla, a piece we in Tech’s orchestra struggled with during the first half of my sophomore year.
As I had been during my two summer stints, I was thrilled. This was so far removed from the classical music I’d expected to play. Don’t get me wrong: I love a wide variety of classical music. But it seemed to me the use of the horn section – where I lived – was far different in the works by the Slavic composers than it was among the works of many of the other great composers. As an example, one of the other pieces we played during my sophomore year was the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, a piece that has been over the years one of my favorite bits of classical listening. But when one listens closely, the horns are not at all busy. And one of the most frustrating things for me as a cornet player in the orchestra was patiently counting in my head forty measures of rest and then playing eight notes before sitting back to count another forty measures. I didn’t have to do that very often with the Slavic composers.
I know I frustrated Dick Skewes. I was not a hard worker. I had a good ear, and my lip was in good enough shape for performances. But I did not practice hard at the music we played. Most of it came easily, so when I was playing at home, I spent most of my time making my way through popular music songbooks. (Not rock and pop; the tunes in the songbooks I paged through were classic pop, things that Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and, yes, Al Hirt had or would have recorded.)
So I slid by on the gifts I had, not expanding them. Until Mr. Skewes selected for our orchestra’s competition season and winter concert season during my sophomore year the First and Fouth Movements of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From The New World.” Written by the Czech composer during a visit to the United States in the 1890s, the work pulls Native American and African American motifs into the classical form.
As our orchestra struggled through the pieces during the early portion of my sophomore years, I was stunned at what I was hearing. There was so much for the horns to do! But I had a major challenge: The trumpet part was written for a trumpet keyed in A. In other words, the note called a C on such a horn would be the same as an A on a string instrument or a piano. Most trumpets and cornets – mine included – were keyed in B-flat, which meant that the notes I was supposed to be playing were a half-note different than the notes that I was instinctively reading and instinctively hearing in my head.
Mr. Skewes’ solution was perfect for me. After school one day, he sat me down with my trumpet part and his score and he put on the orchestra room stereo an LP of the Dvořák symphony. I used my ear to find the appropriate pitches, leaving the notation to provide only the rhythm. I’ve been grateful ever since for his willingness to find another way to help me to learn. And learn I did. Even now, more than forty years later, I know the trumpet parts to the two movements we performed that years of Dvořák’s stunning work. I couldn’t play them, as my lip is horribly out of shape, but I know the parts. Here’s the Dublin Philharmonic with Dvořák’s Fourth Movement:
Mr. Skewes left St. Cloud Tech for graduate school after my junior year, a year when I was second chair in the orchestra instead of first chair, as I had been a year earlier. That frustrated me, and I think it frustrated him, too, because I hadn’t worked as hard as I could on my audition piece. But even the second trumpet parts to the things Dick Skewes had us play were far more interesting than the music I played in the orchestra during my senior year. Our new conductor had us performing lots of Haydn and Handel, lots of pieces that had me counting forty measures and then playing eight notes. It wasn’t nearly as much fun.
My classical library, on LP and CD and in mp3 form, covers a wide variety (especially since my LP library was augmented by the records from the Musical Heritage Society that Dad collected). But when I look at the things I listen to most often, most of them trace their musical lineage to at least one of two places (and sometimes both): The Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and the director’s stand where Dick Skewes stood for those years when I was his horn player.
The murmurs started at Facebook Monday or maybe over the weekend. No one had heard from Bobby Jameson for a while. Was he okay?
Jameson, the mercurial musician whose 1960s music I’d written about during the first year or so of this blog, had a habit of deleting his Facebook page and going away for a while. Someone would say something that offended him, and he’d walk away from FB for a while. But in a day or two, he’d start up again, sending friend requests to me and the hundreds of other people who were his FB friends and who read his poetry and his blog posts and listened to the hours of music – most of it never previously released – that he put up at YouTube.
There were good reasons for his getting annoyed and offended. He suffered from horrible headaches, and that gave him a short fuse. In recent months, both his brother Bill and his mother had passed on, and he was still grieving. And as anyone who spends even a small amount of time online knows, the world is full of idiots and vipers, people who find their satisfaction in either telling people what they should do or in putting other folks down in utterly cruel ways.
Having survived the 1960s craziness of Hollywood/Los Angeles and the strain of life on the streets, and being in recovery from substance abuse for more than forty years, Bobby knew that sometimes the best thing one can do when confronted by idiots and vipers is to walk away. So he often cut ties with his friends and came back a few days later, mending most of those ruptures and starting over again.
But when folks in Bobby’s collection of friends online noticed that he hadn’t posted a thought, a poem or a tune for a while, the questions started and the murmurs grew louder. And two days ago, on Tuesday, the word spread from friend to friend, from page to page: Bobby Jameson was gone. It happened a week earlier, on Tuesday, May 12.
Bobby’s brother Quentin posted yesterday on Bobby’s page: “I especially want all to know that Bob did not harm himself. He had an aneurism in his descending aorta. He was clear headed to the end. He made (I think) a good choice not to opt for a risky surgery, which would, at best, have left him disabled in a nursing home for a few more years. He died true to his own rules of sobriety, honesty, and independence; a warrior’s death.”
From what I understand, it was my 2007 commentary on Bobby’s 1969 album, Working!, that spurred him to join the online world. A couple of people at Bobby’s FB page and at mine have mentioned that in the past few days. One of his friends noted, “[A]lthough he cursed that decision many times, I’m not sure he would have ever done it any differently. I am glad he had the chance to speak up about the past, write his own blog, and begin working through the feelings of all that had happened to him.”
It was through Bobby’s online presence – his blog, his YouTube channels (here and here) and his Facebook page – that I’ve become friends over the years with a large number of people, some of whom knew him in his Los Angeles days, some of whom knew him during the darker days of the early 1970s, and some who’ve met him since. And we’re all grieving.
I never met Bobby Jameson in person, but in the way that the world works today, our online connection made him my friend and my brother. I’m going to miss him, sharp corners and all.
One of the things that pleased me most during the early days of our friendship was that shortly after my piece on Working! brought us together, he shipped me an mp3 of his cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Ramona,” a 1968 track that had been recorded for Working! but was ultimately trimmed from the 1969 album. I was touched that he’d trust me with it and allow me to share it with readers in this space. Here’s one of the two videos he made over the past few years for the track.
Once more, we visit the ghosts of East St. Germain, the main drag here on the East Side of St. Cloud. It’s 1965, and we go once more into the dining room of the Ace Bar & Cafe, where the young whiteray, his parents and his sister are celebrating one occasion or another.
After we order, as we sit with our beverages – probably a Mountain Dew for me, a Coke for my sister, a Hamm’s Beer for Dad and an old-fashioned for Mom – our waitress brings us the relish tray: Carrots, celery, radishes, pickles, liver pate, probably some pickled herring, and an assortment of crackers in cellophane packages.
Restaurants don’t do relish trays anymore. They’re too labor intensive and too wasteful, I imagine. But fifty years ago, every “go out for a nice dinner” restaurant in the St. Cloud area offered them: The Ace, the Persian Club, the 400 Club, the Hub, the Log Lodge, and maybe more I can’t think of right now. The trays’ offerings changed a bit from place to place but a relish tray was a constant of a nice dinner out in those days.
My favorite portion of the relish tray, as I’ve noted here once before, was the liver pate. (I love pickled herring almost as much, but it wasn’t a rare treat, as we routinely had a jar of it in the fridge at home.) Almost as soon as our waitress placed the tray on our table, I’d have my eye on the pate, and I’d rummage through the selection of crackers until I found a packet of Ry-Krisp. The flat rye crackers seemed made for liver pate, and just thinking about that long-ago treat makes my mouth water as I write.
The pate and of the pickled herring on the tray were no doubt a reflection of the Northern European origins of many of the East Side’s residents back then. Most families on the East Side had been in the U.S. for a couple of generations – there were a few immigrants and first-generation Americans – but even second- and third-generation folks fifty years ago tended to hold onto the ethnic tastes and traditions of their ancestors.
There were still vivid connections to those immigrant ancestors: My mom spent a lot of time as a child with her maternal grandfather, who emigrated from Prussia as a child (and in fact, William Raveling lived long enough that I sat on his lap as an infant). My dad’s family had come to the U.S. from Sweden a little earlier but still held onto many of its Scandinavian traditions, lutefisk, pickled herring and flatbread among them.* The families of most of the kids I knew on the East Side were like that. Not all of them descended from Northern Europeans; the names I recall of some of my schoolmates reflect origins in England, Scotland, and the Slavic nations of Eastern Europe. But we all cared about our ancestors’ origins, and the folkways and tastes of those ancestors were important as well.
So why this today? Because last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribunereported that Ry-Krisp has come to an end. After nearly a century, the company is closing. As Kevyn Burger wrote:
For as long as there have been modern grocery stores, there have been boxes of Ry-Krisp on their shelves. Every one of the commercially produced crackers inside was mixed, baked and packed at the world’s one and only Ry-Krisp plant in southeast Minneapolis.
But the Minnesota-born brand is no more. Production at the boxy white factory wound down in March. Soon the final packages of Ry-Krisp will disappear forever from the cracker aisles, and with them, a bit of local history will crumble.
In one short century, Ry-Krisp rose from humble origins to become a product distributed around the globe. The crunchy rye-flavored snack became an emblem for overlapping culinary trends, shifting from peasant fare to health food to diet aid until changing tastes led to the cracker’s quiet demise . . .
Reading that piece brought me back – as so many things seem to do – to the Ace Bar & Cafe. And it brought me back to the occasional stock of Ry-Krisp I used to keep on my shelves at home. I’d buy it as a snack – a platform for cheese – now and then, and about fifteen years ago, after my doctor advised me to adopt a whole grain diet and further encouraged me to avoid yeast and fermented products for a year, Ry-Krisp was one of my bread substitutes. I recall sitting at my kitchen table in my small apartment on Minneapolis’ Bossen Terrace, eating kippered snacks on Ry-Krisp for a quick lunch.
Once the prohibition on yeast and fermented products was lifted, I found myself a brand of whole wheat bread. At about the same time, whole grain Triscuits and Wheat Thins became my snack crackers of choice, and Ry-Krisp left my shopping list. Until this week, that is. Once I read the piece in the Star-Tribune, I knew I had to buy one last box of Ry-Krisp. And here it is.
I wasn’t the only one with the idea, though: By the time the Texas Gal and I got to our neighborhood Ca$h Wi$e on Sunday afternoon, all of the regular Ry-Krisp was gone from the shelves, as was all of the seasoned Ry-Krisp. I was left with the consolation prize of a box of light rye crackers. (The company also made multi-grain and sesame versions of the cracker, but there was no shelf space for those new-fangled varieties at the local store.) It may be light, but it’s Ry-Krisp, and the ingredients are the same as they always were: Whole rye and salt. (The idea of a multi-grain Ry-Krisp, a version I don’t ever recall seeing in stores, bothers me, if only vaguely; Ry-Krisp was supposed to be rye, and when you start throwing other grains into the mix, you’ve got something else.)
So I’ve got my last box of Ry-Krisp, and I think I’ll head out sometime in the next few days to the Byerly’s grocery across town – it’s a little more high rent than Ca$h Wi$e – and see if there’s any liver pate from Scandinavia or even Germany on the shelves. (If I have to settle for French, I will.) Then I’ll have myself one more snack of pate on Ry-Krisp, and for a fleeting moment, it will be 1965 in the Ace Cafe once more. I think I’ll skip the Mountain Dew this time.
And here’s a record that we might easily have heard in the background at the Ace on a Saturday evening in 1965: “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by Sounds Orchestral was No. 1 for three weeks on the Billboard Easy Listening chart and went to No. 10 on the magazine’s Hot 100.
*That attachment to tradition was likely enhanced by the homogeneity of the area around Dad’s hometown of Cambridge – most folks there in the early 20th century could trace their roots to Sweden – and by multi-generational living: Among the members of Dad’s household during his childhood was his Great-Uncle Charlie, whose parents or grandparents came from Sweden. (Great-Uncle Charlie’s rocking chair, refinished and reupholstered a few years back, sits in my dining room.)
About three years ago, having run across an obscure single by Rod McKuen in a Billboard Hot 100 from 1962, I remembered seeking out a couple of volumes of McKuen’s poetry in high school:
Why? A couple of things contributed, I imagine. I’d been listening frequently to the Glenn Yarbrough album The Lonely Things, a 1966 LP of McKuen’s songs that my sister had received from a boyfriend before he headed off to Vietnam. And there was my embryonic interest in writing my own verse and lyrics. Those two bits of my life united, I think, into the realization that even if matters of the heart did not unwind as I might wish they would (and they did not, though at sixteen, how could they have done so?), something worthy might be salvaged from the sorrow.
So I read the two volumes, recognizing a few of the pieces from the Yarbrough album and dipping into those that were not familiar. I found some of them affecting, I remember, and I found some of them not to my taste. Assessing them from a distance of more than forty years – and not having read many of them for that long – I now see much of McKuen’s work as manipulative, pushing his loved (and lost) one’s buttons, as it were, instead of truly grieving. And his poems and lyrics – even those on the Yarbrough album, which I still love – all too often tap sentiment instead of true emotion.
Hmmm. Until I wrote those words, I didn’t know I felt that way about McKuen’s work. As I used to tell my reporting and writing students: If you want to know how you really feel about something, start writing about it and follow the words. But anyway, back to work . . .
And I still feel that way about the work of McKuen, who passed on in California two days ago at the age of eighty-one. But that’s (mostly) the dismissive assessment of an adult. As an adolescent, as I noted in that piece from three years ago, I found many of his works affecting, and – especially when filtered through the voice of Glenn Yarbrough – touching. Sentimental? Yes, I still think so, but I’m also aware that the reliance on sentiment – by McKuen and other writers alike – is one of the things that pushed me toward being a writer, toward using the events and feelings of my life as foundations of my own work.
And there we come to one of the points of this blog: How the music I’ve loved over the years has brought me to where I am, as a writer and a person. And the fact that I have come to be far more critical of McKuen’s work in the forty-five years that have passed since I was a high school junior does not negate the value I found in some of McKuen’s work then nor its influence since those days on my writing and my life.
That value and that influence came most of all from Yarbrough’s album The Lonely Things. So to remember Rod McKuen and to acknowledge his place in my life, here’s one of the pieces from Yarbrough’s album that I found most affecting in 1970. Even as I recognize the song’s flaws today, I still find the combination of McKuen’s words and Yarbrough’s voice a potent mix, which only means that I am both sixteen and sixty-one as I listen to it this morning. Here’s “Stanyan Street, Revisited,” today’s Saturday Single.
If you were to ask me who my most important teachers were, E. Scott Bryce would have been on the short list, perhaps at the top. During one of the most important seasons of my life – the autumn of 1975 – he guided me through maybe the most important class I’ve ever taken. I wrote about it a few years ago:
Among my classes that fall quarter was one in the history of the documentary film. We spent hours watching documentary films – from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece, Nanook of the North – considered by most historians as the first true documentary – through 1971’s The Selling of the Pentagon, a television effort by CBS News. Some of the films were art; I think of Rain, a 1920s film by Joris Ivens (and the fact that these titles and names come back to me unbidden makes me realize again how important that class was to me) that detailed an everyday rainstorm in his hometown of Amsterdam, Holland. Some of them were something darker: The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the 1934 Congress of the German Nazi Party at Nuremberg and was – viewed with knowledge of the tragedy and horror that ensued – a chilling, powerful and dark piece of work.
Not only did we watch films, but we wrote about them. Each student was required during the quarter to submit a certain number – eight, maybe? – of brief critiques of the films we were seeing and one longer critique. The short papers were required to be two to three typed pages, double-spaced, and the longer paper, about ten pages. Not yet being skilled at composing my work at the typewriter, I wrote – actually printed – my critiques on notebook paper. And as I pondered and assessed the films we were seeing, I realized that, although writing was work, it was work I enjoyed, because it gave me the opportunity to move words around into forms and orders that were mine alone.
I remember the first time I realized that: I was writing a critique of Rain, the brief film shot in 1920s Amsterdam, and I was assessing the pacing of the film. I wrote that the film moved through the streets “with a calm urgency, like the rain.” I paused and looked at my words on paper, especially that “calm urgency.” Something about the way those words looked, sounded and read together gripped me tightly. . . . I’m sure other writers before – many others – had found that combination of those two words and gone ahead from there. But for the moment, that set of two words was mine.
That was the moment that I began to think of myself as a writer.
And that moment would not have happened without the guidance of Mr. Bryce. His penciled comments on my papers throughout that quarter helped me sharpen my skills. He pointed out logical fallacies, unclear pronouns, singular/plural disagreements, and wandering and fuzzy thought. He also complimented me for things I did right, some of which I had no idea I was doing. (He wrote once something like, “I love your use of thesis and antithesis where it’s least expected.” I never told him it was a happy accident.)
Along with the course on documentary film and courses in filmmaking, Mr. Bryce taught broadcast newswriting, announcing and radio production. I took them all, and although I never worked professionally in broadcasting, I gained from all of those classes an appreciation for attention to detail. And I gained from the newswriting and announcing courses an appreciation for the sounds of words, a sense that served me well when I added a print journalism minor and headed toward the world of newspaper reporting and editing.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve ever written since the autumn of 1975 has on it the fingerprints of E. Scott Bryce.
I last saw Mr. Bryce about ten years ago, when the Texas Gal and I met him and his wife for dinner in downtown St. Cloud. We thought about getting together again with the two of them, especially after Mr. Bryce and his wife moved into an assisted living center not far from us. But that never got any further than thought, and now it won’t happen: E. Scott Bryce passed on yesterday. He was 87.
Mr. Bryce was one of the moving forces in getting KVSC, the St. Cloud State radio station, on the air in 1967. The station’s primary programming for its first five years was classical music, which he loved, and it was a painful day for him when, in the spring of 1972, we on the radio staff voted to play rock instead. In my later college years, as I got to know Mr. Bryce, I always wondered if I should apologize for my small part in that decision. And in the late 1980s, when he and I were teaching colleagues for a time, I thought frequently about thanking him for his guidance and encouragement – in other words, for being a teacher.
I never did either, and, of course, I can’t now. All I can do is offer a farewell. And I’ll do so with the Largo movement of Symphony No. 9 “From The New World,” written in 1893 by Antonín Dvorák, a movement often called “Goin’ Home.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Blogging wasn’t supposed to hurt. Well, let’s be fair. It’s not blogging that hurts this morning. It’s me, my heart, my soul.
I learned yesterday morning that my blogging brother Jim Kearney – who wrote the blog Gold Coast Bluenote under the name of Paco Malo and posted here the same way – is gone. Notes at his Facebook page indicate that he passed away in his sleep last Thursday, June 5, in his home town of Tampa, Florida.
I hadn’t seen a comment from him here for a few weeks, and I’d thought vaguely of dropping him a line. I should have, but we all know how that goes. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month . . . but sometimes there’s not.
Thinking back this morning, and sorting through an archive of email from the spring and summer of 2007, I can’t figure out which of us found the other first. Jim started Gold Coast Bluenote in December 2006, and there are references there to an earlier blog called Carnal Reasoning. At GCB, he wrote – far more sparely than I – about music, literature, film and more. I started Echoes In The Wind a little more than a month later, and by sometime that summer, Jim was visiting and commenting here and I was visiting and commenting there, and that shifted to email exchanges that continued sporadically for what’s been seven years.
In those exchanges, we talked about music, of course. He especially loved Derek & The Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and the work those musicians did before and after that album. We talked as well about books and about film and about how all of those things reflect and inform our lives.
We talked about life itself. We’ve all got our tales and challenges, and I have a good idea of what some of Jim’s were. He wrote in his notes to me, and a little bit at GCB, about some of the difficult portions of his path, and those words came without even a hint of self-pity; things had happened – some of his own making and some of them not – and he’d worked hard and dealt with the outcomes, and he was optimistic, and soon it would be time to head out on the boat and go fishing, and in the meantime, let’s listen once again to Derek & The Dominos’ “Anyday.”
I’m certain, knowing a little about walking the path that Jim walked, that there were mornings when his optimism was hard to find, afternoons when the joys of fishing were thin, and evenings when he was not certain that, as Eric Clapton sings, “I will see you smile.” We shared a little of how we dealt with those times, how we’d learned to have faith that putting one foot in front of the other eventually gets one out of the dark and back to the place where the smiles are possible and the pompano are biting.
When I wrote here about meeting in real life some of the other bloggers whose work he and I both read, folks with whom I’ve become friends in the flesh-and-blood world as well as the virtual world, he told me that he looked forward to the day when I could give him what I’d called “the nickel tour” of my St. Cloud places from both the present and the past. I told him I looked forward to it as well, but now, of course . . .
The idea evidently mattered to him. I checked at Jim’s Facebook page this morning to see if there was any more information about his passing, and I saw nothing new. Then I happened to notice the pictures on the left side of the page detailing things he’d “liked” on Facebook. The first four “likes” in that list were the Bob Dylan film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Loyola University of New Orleans (his alma mater), and the city of St. Cloud, Minnesota, a place he never knew.
He had at least two friends here, though, as the Texas Gal had also connected with him on FB and read his blog occasionally. And we’ll miss him.
I closed a brief note at Facebook yesterday with these words: “And to say goodbye, I turn to the music that brought us together. Beyond this world there lies a tunnel, and beyond that tunnel there is the light, and in that light, I hope, there is a highway. And I hope that Jim has found the key to his highway.”
Pete Seeger passed away yesterday. His story is well told in today’s edition of the New York Times (and told in great detail at Wikipedia), and I thought that instead of trying (and failing) to tell the whole story this morning, I’d just share a few moments of Seeger’s musical life and heritage.
Seeger was a founding member of the Weavers, the early 1950s folk group that had a No. 1 hit with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and was blacklisted for its liberal leanings during the 1950s Red Scare. This is the Weavers’ 1950 recording of “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” written by Seeger and fellow Weaver Lee Hayes.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Seeger was considered by many to be a dangerous man. As Wikipedia relates, “In 1960, the San Diego school board told him that he could not play a scheduled concert at a high school unless he signed an oath pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government. Seeger refused, and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained an injunction against the school district, allowing the concert to go on as scheduled. In February 2009, the San Diego School District officially extended an apology to Seeger for the actions of their predecessors.”
Seeger’s songs and music were without doubt popular and important far beyond the reach of radio and pop music. Still, in the 1960s, a few of his songs provided hits. “If I Had A Hammer” was a hit for both Trini Lopez (No. 3, 1963) and Peter, Paul & Mary (No. 10, 1962). (It’s likely, for what it may matter, that Lopez’ version of the song is the first Pete Seeger song I ever heard, as a copy of Lopez’ single came home with my sister one day in one of those record store grab bags of ten singles for a dollar. I still have the single, with “Unchain My Heart” on the flipside.) The Byrds (No. 1, 1965) and Judy Collins (No. 69, 1969) reached the charts with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” was a hit for the Kingston Trio (No. 21, 1962) and Johnny Rivers (No. 26, 1965), while a version by guitarist Wes Montgomery bubbled under the chart (No. 119, 1969).
Perhaps the greatest attention Seeger got in the 1960s was when he was scheduled to perform his Vietnam allegory, “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” on the CBS television show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in September 1967. Wikipedia notes, “Although the performance was cut from the September 1967 show, after wide publicity it was broadcast when Seeger appeared again on the Smothers’ Brothers show in the following January.” Here’s that January 1968 performance:
This morning, after I heard the news of Seeger’s passing, I dug around at YouTube for something different to post at Facebook. I came across a mini-documentary detailing how Seeger came to recite Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” for the 2012 collection Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. It’s a piece that tells as much about Seeger as it does about the recording he was invited to make. I was especially moved at the end of the piece when one of the Rivertown Kids, the Seeger-organized choir of young people involved in the recording, seemed to sum up Seeger’s life about as well as can be done: “You’re never too old the change the world.”
St. Cloud radio man – and so much more – Andy Hilger passed away Sunday. When I was growing up, I’d hear his editorials on WJON, the radio station just down the street and across the railroad tracks from our house. But even when I got to know a few people in St. Cloud’s radio community during college, I never knew Andy Hilger. Faithful reader and friend Yah Shure did, however, and he was kind enough to craft a remembrance:
Andy Hilger dropped by a small, 250-watt radio station in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on his way through town in 1958 and asked if there were any job opportunities. By the time he’d sold 1000-watt WJON and its more-powerful sister stations in 1999, they were worth nearly thirteen million dollars. I still have a copy of the 1980 or ’81 front page St. Cloud Daily Times story in which Andy was named the most influential person in the community. It was not an exaggeration. My former WJON co-worker Jim and I were astonished to read things about Andy’s pre-St. Cloud life in his obituary that we’d never known about. It doesn’t seem fair that Alzheimer’s should have ended such a remarkable run for such a remarkable man.
By the time I first got a foot in the door as a salesman (thank you, Marsh), Andy had transitioned out of some of the day-to-day operations of his WJON/WWJO radio stations. Direct selling was not my strong suit, and after two months, I’d come to a crossroads regarding my future at the place. As I departed a meeting with the stations’ two sales managers, I was met in the hallway by Tom Kay, WJON’s program director. He asked me how the meeting had gone, then beckoned me into his office. Tom was in the process of creating another airshift and strongly encouraged me to apply for the position, which I did. Tom didn’t mention this to me until much later, but when he ran the candidates for the position past the station higher-ups, Andy was of the opinion that if I couldn’t cut it as a salesman, he wasn’t at all convinced that I could cut it on the other side of the glass. Having already been familiar with my college radio background, Tom was able to convince Andy otherwise. While it wasn’t uncommon for former air talent to move into sales, no one at WJON had ever previously chosen the opposite path.
WJON was something of a family operation. Andy’s wife Carol handled the payroll, and the Hilger children were sometimes underfoot. Several staffers happened to be in the lobby when daughter Mollie, who was maybe six or seven years old at the time, was running her toy vacuum cleaner over the carpet. During a lull in the conversation, Mollie blurted out, “My daddy’s going to sell this place!” You could have heard a pin drop. Kids really do say the darndest things.
By 1979, Andy was in the process of building a new house for the Hilger family. WJON had a Heathkit weather station in the on-air studio, so that current weather conditions could be tracked after the St. Cloud National Weather Service office shut down each day at 5 p.m. The temperature sensor for the WJON weather station was housed in a small structure with a shingled top and louvered sides, mounted on a short pole in the yard behind the since-demolished old cinderblock studio/office building on Lincoln Avenue Southeast. A buried wire connected the sensor to the Heathkit unit inside the studio.
One day, the temperature readings on the Heathkit went completely haywire, and after some investigation, it was discovered that the louvered structure had been stolen, lock, stock and broken wire. Morning man Galen Johnson was outraged at the mere thought that some lowlife vandal would abscond with the station’s valuable weather instruments as he speculated on-air about who the perpetrator might have been. This went on for several days before the controversy ended as quickly as it had begun. It seems that Andy had thought the structure was actually a birdhouse, and he’d taken it upon himself to transplant it to the new Hilger residence without consulting anyone. His rather sheepish admission of guilt ended the mystery on a typically quiet note.
Andy was a man whose Christian roots and conservative leanings were as deeply embedded in the community as the city’s namesake granite deposits. Although he tended to maintain a general hands-off approach to the music and personality aspects of WJON’s full-service programming, there were times when he did object if he felt things contradicted his beliefs. When a prominent station client threatened to pull advertising from the station, the Edict of Sister Mary Elephant was handed down, barring further play of the Cheech & Chong novelty hit with the screaming nun. Likewise, Billy Joel’s chart-climber “Only The Good Die Young” was quickly scuttled from the WJON playlist after Andy determined the song’s “Catholic girls start much too late” line was one toke over the line for such a Catholic-dominated community. Only Casey Kasem was allowed to override the ban whenever the song appeared on the weekly American Top 40 countdown show.
From very early on, Andy became very active in the St. Cloud community, as did his WJON, which cemented a tight bond between the listeners and “their” station. Ironically, Andy’s hands-off approach to programming meant that he also didn’t go out of his way to get to know his own airstaff very well. One-on-one face time with Andy was relegated to once per year. As the spearhead of the area’s annual United Way drive, Andy would have the station’s receptionist call each of us at home, telling us when to see Andy in his office to discuss our annual “contribution.” Had Andy taken the incentive to sit down and chat at other times, the airstaff might not have been left harboring a bitter aftertaste toward the United Way.
Andy discovered that the ideal way to tout his views were through daily station editorials. These usually tackled local political and community issues, with equal time always provided for opposing opinions. If nothing else, Andy was a fair man, and his reasoning was well-thought out. However, on one winter’s day in early 1981, Andy dropped the ball.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, the Minneapolis Tribune had run a story about the Kingsmen’s 1963 hit, “Louie, Louie,” rehashing the controversy over the song’s allegedly dirty lyrics that had arisen when the song was a hit. Back in 1963, my mother had sat down with me after I’d bought the single, and after playing it all four speeds, gave the record a clean bill of health. (There have since been those who claim that the drummer uttered an obscenity after having dropped a stick. My own take is that they would have stopped the tape at that point if he had. In any event, it wouldn’t have been part of the song’s lyrics.) The Tribune article also printed the complete lyrics to the song as originally written by Richard Berry, which was the first time I’d actually read them. All those garbled words really added up to a Jamaican love song? Who knew?
Not Andy Hilger, apparently. When I heard his WJON editorial run one morning a few weeks later, he’d climbed high on his soapbox, denouncing the record as unfit for human consumption. But Andy never did bring up any of the actual lyrics to prove his case. He was simply restating the hearsay stemming from the 1963 controversy.
When my nightly oldies show began following the station’s ten o’clock news that evening, I let fly the first record I’d cued up: Wand Records single 143. “Dooo-do-do-do. Do-do. Do-do-do. Do-do . . .” Two minutes and forty seconds later, I recited the newspaper article’s printed words to “Louie, Louie,” then went on with the show. I never heard one word about it. Ever since then, whenever I hear the Kingsmen start to play, I’m reminded that my little act of rebelliousness was nothing more than helping to keep a fair man fair.
Here’s a link to the St. Cloud Times’ coverage of Andy Hilger’s passing.
The news, as I would guess most readers here will know by now, came from the family of Levon Helm last Tuesday, April 17:
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey . . .
Thank you, fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration . . . he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage . . .
And Thursday, April 19, there was a simple message at Helm’s website, under a picture of a smiling Levon posed at the edge of a cornfield, a portrait taken during the photo session for his 2007 album, Dirt Farmer. The message read:
Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.
Since then, I’ve read fifteen, maybe twenty tributes to the man and accounts of his life. I can no longer separate my thoughts about Levon Helm from those I’ve garnered from everything I’ve read this week. (The best of those pieces is by Charles P. Pierce at the website of Esquire magazine; my pal jb at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ pointed me there.) So I fear repetition or, worse yet, thievery as I write this morning.
I was lucky enough to see Levon perform three times: The first time, in 1989, found him one of the members of Ringo’s first All-Starr Band; he and fellow Band-mate Rick Danko did a superlative performance of “The Weight” with solos from Dr. John on piano and Clarence Clemons on saxophone. Twice, then, during the 1990s, I saw the latter version of The Band – Levon, Rick and Garth Hudson fleshed out with Richard Bell, Randy Ciarlante and Jim Weider – at the Cabooze in Minneapolis.
Given those memories, and given my long-time affection for the music Levon made with The Band and on his own, his passing this week touched me in a manner that, among musicians, only the passing of John Lennon in 1980 and Clarence Clemons last year had done. Thursday evening’s red-eyed soundtrack here in my study came from Levon Helm, with and without The Band.
Many posts ago, I noted here that The Band was recording and performing the music we now call Americana long before anyone appended that label to the music. That holds true for all of Levon’s music, of course, and every time he played and sang, he reminded us of who we are in this land, and he reminded us of our connection to that land and to each other, things we seem to have forgotten.
Here’s Levon, joined by his daughter Amy, with the final track from Dirt Farmer, “Wide River To Cross.” It’s today’s Saturday Single.