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.

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