News of the death of Andy Williams made me think immediately of my father, who loved the song “Moon River,” which was written by Henry Mancini for the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and was a hit record in at least two versions that I know of: an instrumental by Mantovani and His Orchestra and the vocal rendition by Williams.
My father and his friends, all children of Italian immigrants, all striving to make their way up the ladder of success to join the middle class, attached great value to certain things they perceived as emblems of American aflluence.
My father, for instance, bought golf clubs and went through a phase of playing on Saturdays at the local public golf course, but then gave it up — I believe because he was too tired from working two and sometimes three jobs.
Likewise, he had a bar in his living room where he made highballs and whiskey sours for his friends and aspired to have a finished basement with a really nice hi-fi system where he could listen to Mantovani and Streisand and Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole and Perry Como/…and Andy Williams.
Andy with his cool and mellow way of speaking and singing…Andy with his mohair sweaters and his winning smile…Andy singing “The Christmas Song” as chestnuts roasted on the open fire of some cozy ski lodge in Colorado as the Williams clan and friends gathered ’round every Yule for Andy’s Christmas TV special.
I don’t mean to belittle my father. No, far from it.
The song “Moon River,” with its romance and its nostalgia and its beautiful air of melancholy and longing, moves me whenever I hear it, for I can hear my father — dead ten years this October, gone too soon at age 69 — singing along to the instrumental version by Mantovani about “two dreamers” and his “huckleberry friend…”
“Moon River” reminds me of cool autumn nights with their whisper of winter to come. But the song also makes me think of a young man in the late springtime of his life — my father would have been in his early 30s during those years when I remember him singing “Moon River” — who still believed his dreams could and would come true, “just around the bend,” “my huckleberry friend.”
Happy birthday to one of our world’s greatest poets, William Butler Yeats, who was born on this day in 1865 and died in 1939. So many of his works have stuck in my mind and moved my spirit: “The Second Coming,” “Easter 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Leda and the Swan,” and others.
But this poem, most of all, resides deep in my heart…it resonates and aches and echoes and whispers…
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
On the lighter side…
Here’s the great satirist Tom Lehrer (apparently still alive and kicking, at age 84) with his less-serious take on Yeats:
No rice was tossed. No music played. That’s because they weren’t in a church or a wedding chapel. They were in the library of a small town in northeastern Massachusetts. I looked up from my writing and research — and lo and behold, there they were, an older couple, I’d guess late 60s, maybe early 70s, both dressed in their Sunday best, the bride carrying a bouquet of spring flowers. They stood together in front of a fireplace and the town clerk began to read the wedding vows.
The soon-to-be-husband was serious and steady and composed as he repeated the words being read by the clerk. The about-to-be-bride looked so sweet, so happy, so nervous — and, when she had to repeat that she would take this man to be her friend and lover forever, she began to cry, love in her voice, tears of joy.
At the clerk’s behest, they both said “I do.” And when the clerk told the new husband that he could kiss his bride, he did — and then handed the clerk his small camera, so she could snap their first picture as husband and wife. And then they walked out of the library together, amid congratulations and applause from the two pleasantly surprised people working at tables in the reading room.
I wish them happiness and peace. I hope they will find contentment and comfort in the warmth of their companionship. I hope the bride always cries tears of joy when she thinks of their love.
Some love seems sure to last forever. But love can die, sometimes by accident, sometimes from natural causes, sometimes from neglect or lack of care.
Love can be like alchemy, a magical alloy, a miracle for the ages, which all seek but few find. But gold’s glitter can turn suddenly leaden, dull and gray, too heavy to lift, precious jewel turned into sad and precious dreams.
And love can be steady and clear-eyed and hopeful, an unexpected blessing, a sweet surprise, yin and yang, passionate but also calm, past but also present, heart but also spirit and mind and soul.
I hope the library newlyweds find the true alchemy, the real secret to eternal love. I pray that they may know the comfort and strength of two hearts beating as one.
May God bless and keep you always/May your wishes all come true….May you build a ladder to the stars/And climb on every rung/May you stay forever young. Bob Dylan
Fairy tales can come true/They can happen to you/If you’re young at heart. Riley B. King
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide…
The title of this post — of course! — is from the song “Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead.
Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to…
I’ve been staying recently in my old hometown of Yonkers, N.Y.
A time to mourn…
One morning a few weeks ago I acted on an impulse and visited my father’s grave — more specifically his pullout drawer high up in the marble wall of a creepy mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.
To everything there is a season…
The depraved piped-in organ music and the sickly funeral-home smell of flowers got me thinking about my own funeral plans.
Little trip to heaven…
Basically I have no plans. I do know I’d like to be cremated. I do know I don’t want a funeral.
Imagine all the people….
I think I’d like my friends and family to gather for an informal nondenominational memorial celebration.
May you stay…forever young…
I’d like my younger daughter to read one of her poems. I’d like my son to play something on his guitar. I’d like my older daughter to choose and read some samples of my own writing.
No need for greed…no hunger….
I’d like donations to me made in my memory of anti-hunger groups, peace groups or literacy groups.
And…most important of all perhaps…
May your song always be sung…
I’d like there to be a really good sound system set up
to play these songs (in no particular order):
“Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
“Little Trip to Heaven” by Tom Waits
A Bach cantata
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
“Amazing Grace” (no bagpipes, please!)
and, of course, “Imagine” by John Lennon
Someone who’s more than dear to me wants her final farewell to include Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World…”
My poor father requested “Ave Maria.”
So many other songs would be appropriate and meaningful and sprung from the heart. So maybe I’ll add a few more songs and someone can burn a CD…it would make a nice departing gift for everyone in the studio audience to take home — and take to heart.
I guess we might be talking about a double-edged sword — I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
If I do complain, I run the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man. If I don’t complain, then I won’t be able to bring to light this ridiculous, ludicrous, preposterous, all-the-other-ouses notion that people fifty years old and older are SENIOR CITIZENS.
That latest example of this outrageous assertion: A National Public Radio piece on how there’s been a remarkable spike in the past few years in participation in online social networking (i.e., Facebook) by seniors AGE FIFTY AND OLDER.
You know what I have to say about that?
NO. FRIGGIN’. WAY.
My mother is 78 years old. She is a senior citizen.
Is this the face of a senior citizen? (and you’d better give the correct answer)
OK? Are we clear on this?
The blame, of course, can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which made a really smart decision when it decided that it couldn’t focus all its attention on true senior citizens, who can be expected to die off at the usual semi-rapid senior-citizen pace. So AARP wisely decided to focus on pre-senior citizens and trying to cultivate interest among those still young and vibrant folks an interest in issues they would face when they someday became senior citizens — in, say, about thirty years.
Somehow, though, that smart marketing notion was mutated horribly into the notion that people AGE 50 AND OLDER are defined as senior citizens.
OK, here’s the rule of thumb we are all going to follow from now on. Age 65, technically you’re a senior citizen because you can collect Social Security. The reality, thanks to the still vibrant vibe of the baby boomer generation just now settling into their ergonomic-design rocking chairs, is that old fogie-ness probably begins at about age 75 — reach that age and beyond, then you just have to face facts: You’re old!
In these modern times, someone who reaches the age of fifty is NOT anywhere near being a senior citizen.
So here’s one last warning: Anyone who disagrees had better not come anywhere near me — or run the risk of having me whack you in the kneecap with my goddamned cane.
This great song by Leonard Cohen — “Dance Me to the End of Love” — provides a perfect musical accompaniment to “The Nails,” the piece by the new U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, which I posted earlier today. Listen to Cohen while reading Merwin — and make sure one of your hands is holding a beer for you to cry in…
What words would you choose to utter if you knew they would be the final words you spoke in this mortal realm?
Novelist Victor Hugo declared “I see black light,” which isn’t exactly encouraging. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, reported: “It is very beautiful over there,” which I suppose balances out Hugo’s dark vision.
The very first Queen Elizabeth probably had a whole bunch of castles and crowns and ermine capes and….well, you know the stuff queens own. Nevertheless, she tried to cut this deal when her time came in the early 1600s: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
Good attitude, right? But then along comes the film producer Louis B. Mayer, who on his deathbed declared, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters.” Let’s add James Joyce to this gloomy mix. The great writer died with this question apparently unanswered: “Does nobody understand?” And, OK, we might has well mix some doom into the gloom…Edgar Allan Poe’s final plea: “Lord help my poor soul.”
Whew. Time for something a little lighter.
The great Henry David Thoreau probably had something profound to say when he heard the Grim Reaper’s knock? Nope. Henry’s last utterance: “Moose…Indian…”
I like poet Emily Dickinson’s farewell: “I must go in, the fog is rising” spake Amherst’s belle in 1886.
But this may be my favorite. President James K. Polk, when he died in 1849, told first lady Sarah Polk: “I love you Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”
That’s what I want — I want my heart’s true fulfillment right there by my side, close enough for her to hear me whisper those three perfect words: “I love you.”
She’s nearly 90, but still she’s filled with vim and vinegar. She’s got spunk to spare — no way she’s going to hang around with old people; she’d much rather be home sipping a martini and playing cards and smoking cigarettes while Dean Martin croons on the hi-fi. But she’s got to be so lonely…
Three white-haired ladies look out the front lobby window and wonder if it’s as cold outside as it seems…A receptionist barks “Turn your TV lower!”…Folks gather for meals a half-hour early because meals break the monotony of each dull day…”At least one person dies every week,” she tells us…Her face lights up when she sees you, when she sees she has visitors…I feel the surrender, the sadness, the dying…I don’t think I could face up to such loneliness…and I pray to God you never will.
As we sit and talk with her, I hear the old Paul Simon song:
And this sad but beautiful song by John Prine:
We’ve got to visit her again, sometime soon…