Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Can't You Come Out to Play?"

John Lennon's Birthday is October 9 -- Of course, all of you true-blue Lennon and Beatles' fans already know that. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that it was around this time of year, but it took a Wikipedia check to confirm it. I mention this because I happened to write the following piece without knowing anything about it being Lennon's birthday. That's not what triggered this entry.

This past Sunday morning, (September 30),  I had clicked on one of those iTune's classic rock radio stations, and as soon as I heard a few notes of the first song that came on, I was immediately transported back to 1982 -- I was a student at Emory University's School of Law at the time. Those were the days when I really wanted to be in the music business. After years of being around a composer father and learning the art of a well crafted, magical song, I had been pretty much trained to be able to recognize extra-special melodies. And it was always my dream to find a way to be around folks who created such works of art. Okay, so it didn't pan out as I expected and, instead, I found success managing and advising The Jerky Boys. But, for me, it's music that makes me tick.  It's always been about the music.

So when I heard this particular song on Sunday morning, I thought about the Beatles and, of course, I thought about John Lennon. This then led me to YouTube to see if there were any good videos showing Elton John's performances of this tune.  I ask you: "Is there anything that is not on YouTube?"

The song is "Empty Garden (Hey, Hey, Johnny)" -- performed, of course, by Sir Elton John. Watching Elton perform continues to inspire me, and so I decided to share two versions of the song here. One clip has him playing with the full band, which is always nice, as well as powerful, since it tracks the original recording. But it is the other video that really touched me.  It's a live version, recorded at the Kohl Center in 1999. (the one on the right, below.) I suppose it's because of the version's simplicity. I've always been a sucker for quieter, "unplugged" renditions of songs, what can I say? 

Here you see Elton and the piano -- nothing more. The fact is, you can not fake it when when it's just you and the piano that way. Whenever I see someone performing solo like that, I'm always in standing ovation mode, even when I'm sitting down. Too many of today's musical artists have so much technology at their disposal that it's rare to see someone playing and singing at the keyboard that way. It's intimate. It's real.

Back to "Empty Garden" . . .

I was drawn to this track the first time I heard it, and then I loved it every time after that. Still, I can't remember the last time I've even thought about this song. So when I heard it out of the blue on Sunday morning, it stirred up a lot of feelings -- which then prompted me to write a bit about the experience. The fact that Lennon's birthday is in a few days? That's merely a coincidence. I would have written this same piece had I heard the song in the middle of June.

A Healthy Reminder is a Good Thing -- Watching Elton John perform reminded me about how long it has been since I've experienced the joy of playing the piano and singing. I used to do it all the time. I wasn't all that good at it, but who cared? It always felt terrific to be able to plunk out songs and mimic my favorite performers. When I was in law school, I am absolutely convinced that the only reason I made it through that first year was because I was careful to set aside ten minutes out of every hour so I could turn away from the books and play my Fender Rhodes. That's the instrument that allowed me play "James" (See clip below. If you've never heard this song before, take a moment to listen to it. It's special and, perhaps, my favorite Billy Joel song.) and "Just the Way You Are" -- just the way Billy Joel played them. Well . . . I tried to play the songs like him. Yes, yes, I like Billy Joel. (Some of you out there are probably smiling right now). 

I have thought about playing piano and singing again. Actually, I've thought about it a lot lately.  I've even gone so far as to bookmark the "Musician's Friend" website so I could scope out digital keyboards -- 88 weighted keys, of course. But, for some reason, I haven't pulled the trigger. Who knows why that's the case? 

But the other day I attended the local synagogue for Yom Kippur services. At the end of a very pensive day, I thoroughly enjoyed my annual noodle kugel and bagels and lox banquet, and then headed home. The mood of the day prompted me to take a short walk on the beach before I returned to the house and clicked on the computer to spend some time doing something I hadn't done in a long time -- two and a half years, to be exact. I decided to open a certain video file. It was the file containing the first Eldercation interview with my father. 

"It's Good To See You." - I sat there for 45 minutes and watched him on the large iMac screen. There he was, sitting in the dining room chair, speaking just as though he were sitting in the room with me as I watched the video. I wasn't upset. I didn't cry. I felt happy. It felt great to see him again. 

Then I watched another of the interviews -- I did several of them with Dad, within just a few years. Finally, I watched one extra-special video -- it was something we recorded together one day completely out of the blue. Dad and I needed to compile a list of all the songs he had written so we could transfer his writing and publishing membership from ASCAP over to BMI.  As soon as my father started to talk about his songs, I knew what I had to do. I was lucky to have my camcorder close by, so I grabbed it, clicked on the power switch, and sort of propped up the machine on two books which were sitting on top of the coffee table. The video quality wasn't all that great, and Dad was sitting there wearing a robe over his white undershirt. But none of that mattered. One by one, my father ticked off a song after song. He'd sing a line or two from each melody and his voice still sounded great. Then he'd give me the lowdown -- the back story -- about each composition. 

"I wrote that song with so and so -- a great guy," he said, chuckling. "The song was a piece of crap, but he was a nice guy. A good lyricist."

We must have gone through 100 songs that afternoon. I'll leave it at that. As much as I enjoy watching the interviews I did with my father, I loved watching that "song-review" video, in particular. I will always love watching that footage.

It was a good week for music and Harry.

"Can't you come out to play?"-- is a line in the chorus of "Empty Garden."  It's just one phrase nestled in a wonderful and gentle lyric written (by the amazing Bernie Taupin) about an extraordinary lyricist in his own right -- John Lennon.

Those words, in particular, stuck with me for days after hearing the song. I thought about John Lennon and about all of the Beatles. I remembered sitting in my parent's bedroom in 1964 watching those four "lads" singing, "She Loves You," on the Ed Sullivan show.  I thought about all of those summers at Camp Winadu in the late 60s and early 70s, as my friends and I traveled "The Long and Winding Road" with the Beatles, as they wrote and performed song after song, after song, after song, after song, after song . . .  (you get the point I'm making here, I'm sure.)

And then I thought, again, about my father. It never takes long for the memories to bubble up:  Images of him sitting at the piano singing and playing. "Autumn Leaves," "Fly Me To The Moon," "What Kind of Fool Am I?" "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," "More" -- he knew 'em all so there's no point in me moving beyond five titles. It's comforting to know that I can open these files in my personal hard drive (a/k/a, my brain) any time the spirit moves me.

I think I'll head over to Musician's Friend now and check out those keyboards. 

I figure that it's time to come out to play.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Saturday Afternoons With "The Chief"

I happened to be at a friend's house last weekend and, for some odd reason, we found ourselves watching professional wrestling. Go figure. Actually, the reason is not all that odd. Both of us - in our early 50s - were probably simply curious to see how the "sport" has "developed." All I will say is this: Things have really changed. I couldn't take more than ten minutes of the 2012 version of wrestling.

Anyway, watching the action that day allowed my mind to
float back in time - and it was an enjoyable float - which immediately prompted me to think about Friendly's and then . . . I remembered Saturday afternoons at the Getzov house. Usually, there were some friends hanging out. We'd play whiffle ball against the garage door, flip a few baseball cards or play Strat-O-Matic, order Friendly's for lunch and, of course, when the clock struck one, we would make sure were planted in front of the TV. It was time to watch "Championship Wrestling." It was on every Saturday afternoon and was usually sandwiched right smack in between "Candlepin Bowling" and "Roller Derby" ("The fastest growing sport in America!"). We never missed watching wrestling or, for that matter, "Roller Derby." I mean never.

When it comes to the wonderful world of wrestling - to this day - I can easily recite the names of some of the characters who came to life every weekend. I know I am not alone in this because when I just posted something on Facebook about wrestling, some folks immediately started to shoot off names I was then able to add to the following short list: Bruno Sammartino, Ivan Koloff, Special Delivery "SD" Jones, The Black Demon ("From Parts Unknown"), Gorilla Monsoon, Haystacks Calhoun, Killer Kowalski, Tony Garrea, Freddie Blassie, Andre The Giant, Captain Louis Albano, The Grand Wizard - I could go on here, trust me. Oh - The Professor Toru Tanaka and Mr. Fugi (they used to throw salt in their opponent's eyes - funny). And, of course, there was a completely separate list of guys who used to lose all the time; I always felt sorry for these wrestlers, actually. In that way, the formula was always the same: The challenger, (usually one of those guys who lost all the time) would come out smoking, pummeling the champion over and over again. Then, just at the point where the "star" would be taking his last breath, the tide would turn and the more well-known wrestler would soon emerge victorious after smashing a chair over the other guy's head or performing a death-defying leap from the turnbuckle. There seemed to be a thousand ways to entertain us back then - it apparently didn't take all that much. And we loved every single one of them. (FYI - here is one of many old-time wrestling videos you can see on YouTube, but this one really brought a smile to my face: "Andre The Giant Unmasks The Black Demon" )

Rising Above The Rest - I know I listed quite a few wrestlers above but those who watched those programs in the 1960s and 1970s would notice right away that there is one very important name missing. He was a fan favorite. This guy rose above the rest - at least for me he did. His name? "Chief Jay Strongbow."

Sure, the script ran its course every week - and we knew that script well, as I already pointed out. Still, we loved watching Chief work his magic in the ring, time after time. Here's the way it went: Whenever The Chief would be on the verge of losing his match, the crowd would stir a bit and would then start to do the collective Indian "whoop" - cheering on their
struggling hero. The Chief would be on his back, about to be pinned (it's funny now many times a guy would be on the verge of losing that way), gasping for air but . . . then you would notice his head tilting up a bit, signaling that he could hear something. It was as if the crowd's cheers were liquid energy being injected directly into The Chief's veins - a giant shot of adrenalin traveling throughout his body. And, yes, I was right there with the arena's crowds, whooping and hopping around the den with the rest of my friends, so we were very much involved in all of the madness. I mean, we really believed at some level that we, too, were having an effect! It's funny to think about that now. (Here is one video showing The Chief in action against the Professor Toru Tanaka - Click Here.)

Visiting With A Hero - Watching professional wrestling again also reminded me of a special experience I had years ago, something that, as a child, I never in a million years would have dreamed would take place one day: I had a chance to meet one of my special childhood heroes.

As Eldercation was in its very early stages, I had a good friend who worked at the, then, WWF (now, of course, the WWE). At one point, my friend gave me a list of former wrestlers I might be able to interview for the project. When I saw the list, one name was missing so I immediately asked Ed about him.

"You want to interview Chief?" he said.

Within two seconds, Ed had placed a call and I was soon speaking on the phone with the man himself. Two weeks later I was visiting with Chief on his porch as we looked across his Georgia farmland. Amazing.

We sat and talked about all kinds of things. It was a stormy day - the rain was coming down hard and the wind was, at times, howling so much there were moments when my tripod started to shake and I had to reach out to stop it from falling over. Chief sat back in his rocking chair and seemed to enjoy having the chance to reminisce with me about the early days of television wrestling. He shared stories about the struggles he endured, but he also made sure to tell me that it was a lot of fun, too.

Here is one passage from Joe's (that's his real name, by the way) interview, which is included in "gOLD" :

Joseph Scarpa (71) p/k/a “Chief Jay Strongbow”

"Over the years, so many folks at the WWE, they’ve said to me, ‘People know you all over the world; they call the office all the time, wanting to know where you are,’ they tell me. ‘People really love you, Chief.'"
"People would ask me over the years, ‘ Professor Toru Tanaka your friend? Is Fugi your friend?’ They were acquaintances, not my friends. So that stuff about being a star never even crossed my mind. I was just trying to make a living."

"I started as an amateur, traveling down all those highways. There were a bunch of times I slept in the back of the car—I’m not kidding you—back in the ’40s or so. I traveled sometimes 200 miles on ten dollars. Of course, it was a lot different back then—not like these fellas now making all that money. These guys don’t realize what we did to get ’em up in that position to make that kind of money. Wasn’t Babe Ruth paid something like $100,000 for his contract? The first $100,000 pro athlete? Amazing where we’ve come since then, huh?"

Buy "gOLD: The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations" at (In Paperback and Kindle Versions).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine's Day Story: That Common Repertoire of Experience

Henry Miller - 89
Encino, California

The following is an excerpt from
"gOLD: The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations" (available in both paperback and eBook formats). This is the introduction to the section on Love and Marriage:

Henry Miller was a friend and agent to a number of prominent entertainers, such as Nat King Cole and Kay Starr. I had the honor of visiting him one afternoon at his Encino, California, home, and when the interview was completed, Henry and his wife, Jane, invited—no, they insisted that I join them for a light dinner. Since they had already prepared the meal and set three places at the kitchen table, how could I resist?

At one point during dinner, I found myself mesmerized as I listened to Henry and Jane tell stories about their life together. They talked about their move from Kansas out to California, and how they had watched their neighborhood evolve over the years.

“It was just woods out there, as far as the eye could see,” Henry explained, pointing out the window. “Clark Gable used to always ride his horse right over there, up and down the street,” he said, laughing.

While we were finishing dinner, enjoying coffee and some of the best cookies I’ve ever tasted, the conversation turned to the subjects of marriage and family. Knowing that Henry and Jane had been married 63 years, I had to ask the “How do you do 63 years of marriage?” question. At that point, Henry reached across the table, placing his hand on Jane’s.

“You know, Harry,” Henry explained, “at least ten—who knows, maybe 20—times during that first—what—five years? Six, perhaps? I was gone. I mean, I was out the door; I didn’t want any part of it,” he said, chuckling. “Things sometimes got frustrating; I can’t lie. But, you know,” he said, pausing, looking down and pushing his cup and saucer to one side, “I didn’t leave. Neither of us did. We worked at it—together—as the partners we had promised we’d be to each other—no matter what.”

Henry stroked Jane’s hand as he spoke.

“And now, 63 years later, it’s the memories of those times—we share them. We know that we did, in fact, stick it out. And it’s that common repertoire of experience that serves as the cement that makes this marriage so very special.”

And at that, Henry lifted Jane’s hand and kissed it. Jane’s eyes closed.

“Now, how’s that for a speech?” Henry said, smiling.

* * * * * * * * * *

To read more about what folks like Henry have to say, please feel free to purchase a copy of "gOLD: The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations" for a friend or loved one. If you already have a copy, please pass on the word about this important book.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Valentine's Story: "I Knew"

Manny Weinstein—85
Newton Center, Massachusetts

Manny was one of the very first people I met on my Eldercation journey. The morning I visited with him, Manny sat with me in his sunny home located in Newton Center, Massachusetts, and that’s where he told his story about how he met the love of his life, Dolly, who had passed away many years earlier. “She was a preemie,” Manny explained. “And when her brother first saw her, he said, ‘Oh, my! She looks like a little doll.’ So right away, she was Dolly,” Manny said, smiling. “Calm and so easygoing—the sweetest thing you ever saw.”

Here are some excerpts from Manny's story as it appears in "gOLD: The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations" (available in both paperback and eBook formats):

* * * * * * * * * *

"Finding the right woman and marrying my wife, Dolly. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. I just ended up with a girl who was so good for me and I never thought I deserved somebody that nice. And I guess—well, the whole thing was unusual, because I got engaged by proxy, by my father.

I was a very shy person, never had a steady girlfriend. Any time I went out, it was on a blind date that somebody made for me. So a bunch of us, friends, we used to go to a camp in Annisquam, outside Gloucester, run by a guy named Abe. It was a great place to have fun. And I remember I went into the rec hall there one day and I saw this young girl, dancing—she was doing the Lindy, which is an old dance from years ago. She was very spry and she was just . . . Harry, I was just taken with her right away. And then I think one of our trips to Gloucester at night was to get on one of these big sailing boats and take a ride. And I’m a romantic person, so, you know, the spray of the ocean, the breeze, the silence; you could feel the strength of the wind pulling the boat. And then, of course, having Dolly sitting beside me was nice, too. (Smiles.)

So, anyway, when girls went home at the end of the week, they had cars or taxis to take them to Boston, to the train, and so on. And when the girls got to the station, everybody grabbed their bags to help them get into the car, and then the guys wrote down the girls’ numbers in their little black books, “So we’ll write to each other”—you know how it goes. So I took down Dolly’s name and address and that was that.

Now it was two years later, I went into the service and I took my little black book; there must’ve been a hundred names in it. I bought a hundred penny postcards and wrote to every girl and thought, “Whoever answers me I’ll correspond with.” And Dolly answered me. Please understand: I hadn’t seen or talked with her or anything since the camp. But she answered me.

So we corresponded a little bit; she wrote me very nice letters. Never “Hello, how are ya? What’s doing?” Never anything shallow like that. Every letter was interesting, and different. So I invited her to come to Boston to spend my second furlough with me—this was just before I was heading overseas—and she accepted.

I met her upstairs at one of those balcony things there at the train station. I remember exactly what she had on: a leopard coat—imitation, of course—and one of these brown pillbox hats. And she gave me a hug. I don’t even know if I kissed her. . . . Anyhow, I asked for a furlough extension, got it, and we became engaged. It was the last day there, I looked at her and said, “I guess this is it.” She says, “Yeah.”

I knew."

* * * * * * * * * *

To read more about what Manny has to say (as well as hear stories from many other lively seniors, please feel free to purchase a copy of "gOLD: The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations" for a friend or loved one. It really
is a tremendous (and important) investment.

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