Gordon Lightfoot and me, yesterday and today

Gordon Lightfoot…then
Gordon Lightfoot…now

I’ve got this vague memory from my college days in western New York. It has to something  to do with this guy I knew who was looking for someone to hitchhike with him to Ontario where Gordon Lightfoot had supposedly been busted for pot possession and was supposedly waiting for someone to come bail him out of jail . That was so long ago that now I can’t remember if I actually went with the guy, or whether it wasn’t even me involved in this escapade but one of my friends, or whether Lightfoot was actually even in jail. I don’t even remember the name of the guy I think I somehow knew, although I do remember that, if he really existed, he was sort of sketchy and was not a student but just hung around campus and looked mysterious and had longish very dark hair and a dark complexion and wore dark sunglasses all the time.

This was in the days when I hung out at bars in Niagara Falls with names like Dew Drop Inn (a country-western place patronized by western New York good ol’ boys and Native Americans from the Tuscarora reservation)  and The Frog Pond, where factory workers from Hooker Chemical and Carborundum Steel spent their paychecks and where the design motif, for some lost-in-the-toxic-smog reason, was FROGS — paintings of frogs, frogs on the napkins, drink stirrers with little frogs sitting atop the tip and little plastic frogs glued to the inside bottom of beer mugs. Come to think of it, the frogs weren’t the only mystery about The Frog Pond. It’s also a mystery why those big burly dirty grown-up shot-and-a-beer-drinking factory workers allowed a long-haired Southern Comfort-drinking college kid to hang out on their turf and didn’t push him out the door and drop-kick him into the bubbling and gurgling and beautifully named Love Canal.

The point of these musings and memories, I guess, is that it was all a long, long time ago, and many memories have faded, but somewhere in there I remember liking — really liking — an album called “Summertime Dream” by Gordon Lightfoot. I still love that album, which is one reason why I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a performance by Lightfoot last night in New Brunswick, N.J.

But  I had to deal with some issues.

One of them was the feeling I get every time I see one of those PBS television specials featuring pop and rock performers from the 1950s and 1960s — specifically, that these people in the audience are really friggin’ OLD. I can deal with this when I see the doo-wop fans — I mean, if that music was the soundtrack of their adolescence, these folks had to be born right around the beginning of World War II, right? So they’re all well into their 60s and even their 70s. No wonder they look old. Even the 1960s revival on PBS sort of bothers me, but not really….I mean I wasn’t even close to being a teenager when the British invaded, so why should it bother me that Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Eric Burdon of the Animals and every single member of the Moody Blues looked like they were all allowed to leave the nursing home for this concert but had to promise not to play the music too loud and to be back home by 11.

I dealt with this hang-up last night by telling myself as I studied the audience that I looked way younger than that white-haired guy with the cane and that “dark-haired” guy with the obvious and very bad hairpiece. Etc.

I then watched with some alarm as Gordon Lightfoot walked out on stage and I realized he was moving like AN OLD MAN. A quick Google search revealed that Gordon’s nearly 74 years old. In recent years he has dealt with a nearly fatal abdominal aneurysm and a mini-stroke (suffered while he was on stage performing, for God’s sake) and an episode (I think related to the aneurysm) in which he was actually in a coma for six weeks.

But then…as I marveled at all of the old folks around me and pondered the notion of Gordon Lightfoot being just six years away from being EIGHTY YEARS OLD…I focused on something different. Sure, Lightfoot’s voice had lost of some of its richness and depth. Sure, he looked a little shaky up there and seemed to get out of breath quite easily.

But he’s still talented and still a good performer. I loved the show. And I ever make it to 74 years old and I’m half as cool as Gordon Lightfoot, who’s still playing his guitar and singing his songs on stage in front of thousands of grateful fans,  I’d be quite happy with my lot in life.

So I sat back and just enjoyed some beautiful music: “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Early Morning Rain” “For Loving Me,” Rainy Day People,” Carefree Highway,” “Christian Island,” and other lovely tunes.

My favorite of those songs he performed? “Edmund Fitzgerald,” which tells the sad and true tale of a freighter which sank in 1975 on Lake Superior, leaving all 29 crew members dead; the iconic “Early Morning Rain,” the stunningly beautiful “Christian Island,” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” if only for these verses:

“If you could read my mind love/What a tale my thoughts could tell…But stories always end/And if you read between the lines/You’ll know that I’m just tryin’ to understand/The feelings that you lack/I never thought I could feel this way/And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it/I don’t know where we went wrong/But the feeling’s gone/And I just can’t get it back…”

I do wish Gordon Lightfoot had played these two songs:

Here’s his cover of Dylan’s beautiful “Ring Them Bells”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gFxxDOnsK0

And here’s what I think is the most beautiful song from the “Summertime Dream” album, “I’m Not Supposed to Care”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUkEpZ4mdQc

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Rocking in “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz”

Who ever would have imagined? Somehow you find yourself in, of all places, Indiana, in a town called Richmond, just over the Ohio line, about midway between Indianapolis and Louisville.

You’re heading to breakfast at a downtown cafe and notice a large mural, about two stories high, of a 1920s-vintage blues musician carrying his guitar and his cardboard suitcase. As you wonder about the mural, you wander around the corner and there’s another mural — this one depicts (their names are under the pictures, although you easily recognize a few of the faces) Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and others.

Turns out Richmond, Indiana, calls itself “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz” — and has a legitimate claim to that title. Early in the last century, the town was the home of Gennett Records and Studios, which put out early recordings by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller. Really early recordings. The last commercial record released with the Gennett label came out in 1934.

I didn’t get a chance to stop by the town’s Starr-Gennett Galley, which displays artifacts and memorabilia and offers CDs of music by the label’s musicians. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Gennett Records Walk of Fame.

But I did visit the brick ruins of the former site of Gennett Records and the Starr Piano Company — Gennett was a division of Starr, which was famous in its own right and was founded way back in 1872 in Richmond. And as I tried to imagine the days when the place bustled with activity and reverberated with music, I also tried to get my head around the impressive roster of Gennett musicians — including Bix Beiderbecke and The Wolverines, Gene Autry, Big Bill Broonzy, blues diva Alberta Hunter, King Oliver, Lawrence Welk (yikes!) Hoagy Carmichael, country/bluegrass legend Uncle Dave Macon, and — holy moley and hosannah! — Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton!

Richmond, Indiana, where the Ku Klux Klan once thrived, where a hotel houses a collection of framed and mounted gaudy neckties donated by visiting Agway distributors and Kiwanis Club conventioneers, where the local history museum proudly displays one of only two honest-to-goodness Egyptian mummies in residence in the entire Hoosier State, which back in the 1920s and 1930s proudly proclaimed itself “The Lawnmower Capital of the World” — and where great bluesmen and great jazz musicians gave birth to great music at Gennett Records, “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz.”

Here’s Big Bill Broonzy:

Here’s Hoagy Carmichael singing “Stardust”:

Here’s Uncle Dave Mason:

Here’s Charley Patton singing “High Water Blues”:

And here’s Blind Lemon Jeffersonm, speaking for us all, singing “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”:

Road music/soul music

Here’s a song I’ll be listening to — via the soundtrack of my mind — as I take a little trip to heaven (aka the Berkshires) this weekend…

And here’s a song I’ll be hearing in my head as I pull into my favorite small town in the Berkshires foothills — a place that feels like home — where everything seems just right, where spinning stars shine bright, where my sore eyes will seek the sight that soothes my very soul.

Imagine…

Imagine if the Beatles had stayed together just a few more years…if they had recorded just one more album…What early (1970-1975) post-Beatles songs might have appeared on that fantasy Beatles album?

That was the theme of an article I read in some British newspaper a few months back. The writer, Neil McCormick of the Guardian, came up with this track list:

Side One: Instant Karma (John), Band on the Run (Paul), What Is Life (George), Love (John), The Back Seat of My Car (Paul), Back Off Boogaloo (Ringo), Mind Games (John).
Side Two: Gimme Some Truth (John), Let Me Roll It (Paul), Jealous Guy (John), Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul), #9 Dream (John), All Things Must Pass (George), Junk (Paul).

I say drop “Back Seat” and “Band On the Run” and “Let Me Roll it” and “Gimme Some Truth” and replace them with two more songs by George — “Beware of Darkness” and “Isn’t It a Pity” — and a different song by John — “Imagine.”  And I say drop Ringo — just let him play drums…

Here’s my track list:
Side One: Instant Karma, Beware of Darkness, #9 Dream, All Things Must Pass, Mind Games
Side Two: Love, Maybe I’m Amazed, Isn’t It a Pity, Jealous Guy,  Junk, What Is Life, Imagine

Imagine that…

And imagine if John Lennon and Paul McCartney, watching television one night at the Dakota, really acted on their impulse, got into a cab and rode to 30 Rock, and walked onto the set of “Saturday Night Live” to accept Lorne Michaels’ generous offer:

And just in case the song’s not familiar…here’s Paul McCartney’s “Junk” —

Bravo! Maestro!

I’ve been distracted by life’s soundtrack. There’s been the usual sour notes, off-key chords and discord. And there’s been, more and more, beautiful music  — symphonies of souls in tandem, fugues of faith, ballads of belief, happy harmonies.

Distracted…and meanwhile Johnny Maestro dies, at the age of 70, somewhere in Florida…far from the Brooklyn Bridge….

Yes, THAT Johnny Maestro, lead singer of The Brooklyn Bridge, which somehow scored a hit with the chest-puffed, beefed-up, melodramatic “The Worst That Could Happen” right smack in the midst of the FM-oriented, album-rock Beatles and Dylan and Gang musical revolution.

For the record, here’s that song:

But here’s my real point…I never knew that none-other-than a very young Johnny Maestro himself was the lead singer of one of the greatest doo-wop groups ever — The Crests! It’s Johnny Maestro singing lead on one of the greatest doo-wop songs ever.

All I have to say is rest in peace… and “Bravo! Maestro!”

One love

So I’m sitting in a writer’s studio in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s been an absolutely gorgeous day with deep blue skies and puffs of clouds and temperatures in the mid-60s for God’s sake and I’m supposed to be working on a novel but instead I’m gazing out a window at two brown horses who are totally ignoring the absolutely spectacular view of that mountain range in the distance, which view I’d like to share with someone who’s hundreds of miles away but it feels more like thousands or maybe millions of miles…So I need to remember what’s truly important, remind myself that miles are merely man-made measures, and what’s truly important are the things that can’t be measured by conventional means — such as the depth and breadth of love.

I need a song about love…hmmm…maybe something by the rajah of reggae, the Jesus of Jamaica, the truth-speaker of Trenchtown:

And now that I’ve got that out of my system (for now), here’s another great song by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and as we listen to it let’s lower the flag and bow our heads and ponder that Bob Marley has been gone now nearly thirty years, that when he died of cancer he was only 36 years old, and that his last words, spoken to son Ziggy, were: “Money can’t buy life…” The man who uttered that parting warning also wrote this great, great song, “One Love,” which is Marley’s reggae spin on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”: