book cover2When are you going to publish all your Walker columns in a handy, easy-to-read paperback edition?

Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that question . . . but why are we wasting our time with math problems? The point is, all my Walker columns are now available in a handy, easy-to-read paperback edition!

You heard that right! The Walker is now in paperback! And you can order your own copy directly through

And what a deal it is, too! For only $19.95 (plus S&H) you will receive 260 pages of writing (and the margins aren’t all that wide, really). That’s a lot of words! The columns include:

  • That one about the time something funny happened.
  • One about a song I heard, and what it made me remember.
  • Jokes!
  • A bunch of other stuff. More stuff, in fact, than you can shake a stick at, even for those practiced in the art of stick shaking.

You will find all of this (and more!) in short, easily digestible chapters. It’s like Paine said about Holly Martins’s books in The Third Man: “What I like about them is you can put them down and pick them up at any time.” Just like The Walker!

So what are you waiting for? Order your copy now! Operators are standing by—don’t force them to remain on their feet any longer!

Holmes card

A business card from the Sherlock Holmes Museum on London’s Baker Street.

I suffered a major loss recently.

My phone died. It was not a smartphone by any sense of the word, and I did not use it to connect to the Internet. I used it for phone calls, texts, and the occasional picture.

It was not at all a well phone, and one morning it wouldn’t wake up. I tried applying phone CPR, desperately pressing buttons in the hope that I could revive it. “Stay with me, phone,” I pleaded. “STAY WITH ME!” Much to my relief, the phone turned back on. It worked for a few hours, as though  it just wanted a chance to say goodbye, and then it shut down for good.

Now I have a smartphone.

That means I can now listen to podcasts on my phone while I take my morning walk. Today I streamed the latest episode of I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, a podcast with charming and erudite hosts Scott Monty and Burt Wolder. The subject, of course, is Sherlock Holmes and everything associated with the great detective and his universe. The show I heard today was an interview with author Nicholas Utrechin. He has just published a book called The Complete Paget Portfolio, which reproduces every single illustration that the great Sidney Paget drew for the Holmes stories when they originally ran in the Strand magazine. I enjoyed the podcast immensely, and it got me musing about things Sherlockian.

I’ve been a Holmes fan for a long time now, and I can blame Soupy Sales. One night when I was around 12 or 13 I happened to catch What’s My Line, a TV show in which celebrity panelists sought to determine the occupation of a guest. The mystery guest that night was a man who worked for  Abbey National, a bank whose headquarters occupied the address of Sherlock Holmes’s lodgings at 221B Baker Street in London. One of his duties was to respond to people who wrote letters to Sherlock Holmes.

During the course of the program, panelist Soupy Sales mentioned that Holmes used cocaine. This made me sit up and take notice. I hadn’t read any Holmes at that point, but I certainly knew who he was, and the idea that this fixture from popular culture might have used drugs surprised the heck out of me. It was like hearing that Tarzan had a drinking problem, or that Superman liked to kick Krypto the Superdog.

HoundI set out to do a little research. On one of our bookshelves we had my grandfather’s copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a red-bound hardcover edition from the early 1900s. I pulled it down from the shelf and began reading. Like so many before me, and so many after, I was drawn immediately into the atmospheric setting of Victorian London, with hansom cabs and the clop-clop of horses’ hooves, and the mysterious bearded stranger following Dr. Mortimer through the streets. I could imagine the hushed tones of Dr. Mortimer’s voice when he said, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” Above all, I was fascinated by the character of Holmes, who could learn so much from those little details that others overlooked, and his friendship with Dr. Watson, who was not the amusing dolt I had glimpsed in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on TV, but an intelligent, educated medical man.

There was one thing missing, though, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. There was not a single mention of cocaine. Soupy Sales must have been mistaken. But whether or not Holmes was addicted to cocaine, I was now hooked on Holmes. My middle-school library had a big omnibus edition of Holmes stories, so I checked that out and met for the first time people like Irene Adler (“To Sherlock Holmes she was always the woman), Jabez Wilson, Inspector Lestrade, Henry Baker, and the nefarious Professor Moriarty.

At some point I read The Sign of the Four. It began like this:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff.  For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it.  On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.  Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject, but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty.  His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch, or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.

“Which is it to-day?” I asked,–“morphine or cocaine?”

Holy crap. Never again would I doubt Soupy Sales.

I wasn’t the only person intrigued by Holmes’s cocaine habit. Around the time that I discovered Holmes, Nicholas Meyer published The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a novel in which the detective falls so deeply into addiction that Dr. Watson lures him to Vienna so Sigmund Freud can wean him off cocaine. The book was a huge best-seller and sparked a Holmes revival. I received a lot of Sherlockian books that Christmas. My grandmother got me The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.  I also got The London of Sherlock Holmes, The World of Sherlock Holmes, In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, and Sherlock Holmes Detected. I got Naked Is the Best Disguise, in which, if I recall correctly, author Samuel Rosenberg postulated that “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” was really a metaphor about anal rape. There was a lot about Nietzsche in it, too, and syphilis, other things that were perhaps a bit above the head of a 14-year-old. I think it helped me realize that literary criticism could be a bit silly.

At some point I received the big, two-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes. One of my favorite Sherlockian gifts from this time was The Return of Moriarty by John Gardner. It told the story of Holmes’s great nemesis, who did not perish at Reichenbach Falls, but made a non-aggression pact with his adversary and later returned to London to resume his criminal enterprises. The book captured a real sense of Victorian London’s underbelly and it seemed as though yellow fogs should have been swirling through its pages.

I still have all those books, and many, many more. One of the first Holmes books I purchased myself was the Penguin paperback of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It cost $1.25, a bit pricey for me at the time, but worth it. On the cover was a photograph of a recreation of Holmes’s sitting room at 221B. (Years later I would see that same sitting room at the Sherlock Holmes, a pub in London.) I filled out my collection of the original stories with the Berkeley Books paperback editions, which also had pretty cool illustrations on the covers and cost a much more economical 60 cents.

At this point in my life I have a big bookcase in my office filled with Holmes books. They have started to spill over into another bookcase, and I have filled a couple more shelves with books downstairs. I still have my grandfather’s old copy of the Hound, as well as one I picked up at a used bookstore in York, Pennsylvania, for $3.50 and discovered was a first American edition. I have a lot of pastiches, in which authors other than Conan Doyle try their hands at Holmes stories. Some are good, but many or not. I have books in which Holmes meets Dracula, Dr. Jekyll,  the Phantom of the Opera, Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt, Father Brown, Jack the Ripper, and the Martians from The War of the Worlds. I own several books about Holmes in the movies. I have a Sherlock Holmes cookbook, a Sherlock Holmes crossword book, and a Sherlock Holmes pop-up book. I have reference books like The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana and several Sherlock Holmes biographies. My favorite biography is Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by William S. Baring Gould, which I bought on a remainder table a long time ago for $2.49. I have books about Holmes’s London, as well as any number of collections of Sherlockian essays. As someone once said, “Never has so much been written by so many for so few.”

sherlock Holmes of

Over the decades my fascination with Holmes has ebbed and flowed, but it never goes away. I read something Sherlockian every now and then. I recently finished Mycroft Holmes, the novel co-written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While it is without a doubt the finest Sherlockian book ever written by an NBA superstar, it left me feeling underwhelmed. There was too much action, too many explosions, too much derring-do. It had the same flavor as the Robert Downey, Jr,. Holmes movies. They were entertaining enough, but it wasn’t the Sherlock Holmes I grew up with. On the other hand, I loved the BBC’s Sherlock, at least until it went off the rails in the last episode, and I also enjoy the CBS series Elementary. I am not a purist, but if you’re going to mess with the recipe at least come up with something interesting.

Purists might complain about the way Sherlock and Elementary place Holmes and Watson  in the modern age, but that’s nothing new. Arthur Conan Doyle set one story, “His Last Bow,” on the brink of World War I. Until Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939, film adaptations put Holmes and Watson in the modern world of telephones and automobiles instead of telegraphs and hansom cabs. After making two period films for Twentieth Century-Fox, the Rathbone/Bruce team abandoned the Victorian era to fight Nazis in the 1940s.

Holmes himself has evolved—or at least our perception of him has. Pastiche writers used to portray him as a superhuman thinking machine, but today’s interpreters often make him a victim of his own intelligence, a neurotic, broken genius who needs Watson to keep him grounded. That interpretation goes back at least to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. (But Billy Wilder’s great and woefully overlooked 1970 film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, also gave us a damaged detective.) Jeremy Brett’s Holmes on British TV in the 1980s became more and more neurotic as the series went on, possibly because Brett battled mental illness in real life.

I think Conan Doyle might have blanched at these interpretations. His Holmes was not superhuman but neither was he a sociopath. He wasn’t an unshaven slob like Robert Downey, Jr. or, to an extent, Elementary’s Jonny Lee Miller. (Conan Doyle’s Holmes had “a cat-like love of personal cleanliness”). He did use cocaine but eventually stopped. But the image of a man whose towering intellect raises barriers between himself and the rest of the world seems to strike a chord in our own neurotic, broken 21st century. That’s one of the great things about Holmes, I guess. He’s amazingly malleable to many ages and circumstances.

Neurotic and broken it may be, but at least the 21st century has podcasts like I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere. And phones as smart as Holmes with which to hear them.


VenusandMarsToday is a cold December morning, but the song that fills my ears flashes me back to a warm spring day on the cusp of summer, sunlight strobing through green leaves overhead as we drive along the Pond Road outside Manchester, Maine. My brother, some friends and I are on our way to go water skiing, and “Listen to What the Man Said” by Paul McCartney and Wings is playing on the eight-track in my brother’s Ford station wagon. It must have been late May or early June 1975, and I was ecstatic to be out of school and on the way to the lake, not least because I had just escaped what would have been, without a doubt, the worst humiliation of my young life.

It was a weird and restless spring, that sophomore year of high school. I would have been fourteen, almost 15, and just a flesh sack of raging hormones and insecurities, like most teenage boys. It was an odd spring for other reasons, too. My high school had been receiving a slew of bomb scares that quarter. Someone would call the office, claim there was a bomb in the building, and hang up. We would evacuate the school so the police could bring in dogs and conduct a thorough search. If it was late enough in the day, we would get sent home. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it created kind of a stop-start feel to the education process. There was also the growing fear that the school year would get extended to make up for the lost time.

People today forget how many bombings and bomb scares there were back in the late 1960s and 1970s. I recently read a book, Days of Rage, that detailed the efforts of far-left groups to make major social changes by blowing things up. There were hundreds of bombings—everything from army recruiting centers to the offices of big corporations. The Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol were hit. The Weather Underground accidentally demolished a brownstone in Manhattan when their bomb maker set off the explosive device he was working on. There was even a bombing in my home town of Augusta, when someone planted a device at the headquarters of Central Maine Power in May 1976. They were strange days indeed.

So there I was, sitting in sophomore biology class with the end of the school year tantalizingly close. It was already an uncomfortably warm day and promising to get worse. We had no air conditioning in Cony High School—this was Maine, after all—so the windows were open, but it made little difference. The air hung hot and heavy. And our teacher was talking about sex.

Specifically, he was talking about the human female reproductive system. He discussed eggs, uterine linings, mucus membranes, the menstrual cycle, blood, fallopian tubes. (Fallopian tubes? That sounded like something Scotty would have used to reach the engine room on Star Trek.) It was classic high school discomfort, sitting in a room with your classmates—many of whom were equipped with fallopian tubes and everything else—while pretending not to be deeply embarrassed and self-conscious. Was the room, already stifling, getting even hotter?

Apparently it was, because beads of sweat appeared on my forehead. I felt positively clammy. And then, at the edges of my vision, I sensed an effect like that on Star Trek when people used the transporter. My sight was slowly becoming pixellated, starting at the edges and gradually taking over my eyes, as though my consciousness was getting beamed out of my body.

With a growing sense of horror, I realized I was going to pass out.

I was panic-stricken. I was going to faint in biology class while my teacher was talking about the female reproductive system. Within minutes the news would flash all over the school. “Did you hear that Huntington passed out in biology class? Right onto the floor. Couldn’t handle the sex talk.” I would have to drop out of society and become a hermit. I would need to wear a paper bag over my head whenever I appeared in public. I would be shamed, mocked, and  jeered. Children would point at me in the streets and laugh. Everyone would make fun of me. I would never, ever live it down. My life was going to become a living hell as soon as I hit the floor.

The more the panic grew, the worse I felt. What could I do? As my vision clouded over, I considered putting my head between my knees. I heard that helped when you were about to faint. But, no. That would just attract attention. “Are you okay, Tom?” the teacher would ask, and everyone would hoot with laughter as I headed off to see the school nurse. Maybe I could just put my head on the desk. Nope. That would be just as bad. I had no options. Nothing. I was doomed. Doomed! I could barely see by this point. I was going down . . .

And then the intercom crackled into life and the disembodied voice of the principal granted me deliverance. “Students and faculty, please evacuate the building,” it said. Someone had called in a bomb scare. I was able to lurch to my feet and stumble out of the room with the rest of the class—pale, sweaty, not looking at all well, but still conscious and with my dignity somewhat intact.

Within the hour we were speeding down the Pond Road, windows open, Venus and Mars on the eight-track player, Lake Cobbossee beckoning, and all was right with the world. Thank you, anonymous bomb scare caller. You saved my life.

whipped cream and other delightsTruth be told, at present I do not have anything by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on my iPod. It was Frank Sinatra who got me thinking about the band the other day when I heard him sing “Sunny.” That’s a song I knew from The Brass Are Comin’, a 1969 Tijuana Brass album I used to own.

Is it possible to overestimate the impact of the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s? They were huge and ubiquitous. You heard them on the radio, in chewing gum commercials, in movies, and on game shows. They sold millions and millions of albums. Recently I saw an article about a record store that pretended to sell nothing but copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights. The concept is not that far-fetched. Released in 1965, the album sold six million copies, and the cover—an attractive woman wearing nothing but the title dessert topping—entered pop culture iconography. It seems like every middle-class American home had a copy of the album in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Wayne Campbell described Frampton Comes Alive!: “If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.”

Ironically, Whipped Cream & Other Delights was one Tijuana Brass album my family did not own. But we had others. In fact, it was thanks largely to the influence of Herb Alpert that I became a trumpet player.

Initially, my parents had three Tijuana Brass albums: The Beat of the Brass, which accompanied a TV special of the same name, What Now My Love? and Sounds Like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. For Christmas one year I got the cassette tape of Greatest Hits. I also acquired South of the Border. I remember my father took me downtown to Day’s Jewelry, which sold stereo equipment and records, and helped me pick it out. Dad wanted that album because it included “The Girl from Ipanema,” one of his favorite songs. Later I got The Brass Are Comin’, the soundtrack to another TV special.

Beat of the BrassI remember times when Dad would come home from work and we’d sit in the basement and listen to the Tijuana Brass as we waited for supper. He’d sip a cocktail—probably a Manhattan—and I’d lie on the sofa (real Naugahyde!) and daydream about how cool it would be to play the trumpet like Herb Alpert and really impress the girls in school. I especially liked The Beat of the Brass, despite the clunkers that ended each side. Both featured Alpert’s vocals. One was “Talk to the Animals,” complete with kid chorus. The other was Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.” I thought it was pretty sappy song. For years I was mystified by the line, “My hand . . . I shaved it.” What kind of bizarre love ritual was that? Years later I realized Herb was singing that his hand was shaking. So it’s a good thing he wasn’t shaving.

I wasn’t there for the vocals. I liked the band. I really  can’t tell you why. It certainly wasn’t great jazz. Alpert was a perfectly good player and he had a nice, bright tone, but he wasn’t pushing any boundaries. The songs were mostly covers of pop hits or Broadway tunes, things like “Monday, Monday” or “If I Were a Rich Man.” They were catchy, as were the arrangements, and it was all pretty easy to digest. I liked “Zorba the Greek,” the way it sped up and slowed down and sped up again; and the irresistible “Tijuana Taxi,” and the melancholic “What Now My Love?” I admit the Tijuana Brass songbook is a little cheesy, but it’s easy to like. It’s good cheese. I liked it then and I still do, although now my affection for the music is tinted by nostalgia.

When I was in fifth grade—this would have been around 1970—a man arrived at school to speak to the students. His name was Mr. Griffin. As I recall, he was somewhat short, a little stout, and had glasses and a Van Dyke beard. Look up the word “professor” in the dictionary and you might find his picture. This real-life Harold Hill came to pitch the idea that we should lease instruments from him for a very low monthly fee, and that eventually we would own them. It was a no-brainer. At the time my mother was pushing for me to take piano lessons—we had a piano in the living room—but I was not interested. The piano wasn’t cool. I went home from school that day and told my parents I was going to play the trumpet, and that it really wasn’t going to cost them much.

That’s how I ended up with a nice gold Conn trumpet in a gray plastic case. Shortly after I picked up the instrument, my fifth-grade teacher asked me to stand up and play something for the class. I think I tackled “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I attacked it with gusto and thought I sounded pretty good. No doubt my classmates listened to the squawks and bleeps coming from my trumpet with expressions of shock and horror. Some may have burst into tears. I don’t recall any girls swooning.


Portrait of the trumpet player as a young man. I blame Herb Alpert for this.

I got better. I obtained a few big books of music and learned some Tijuana Brass favorites, including “Tijuana Taxi,” which I played incessantly. I played the trumpet through elementary school, junior high, high school, and into college. Probably the high point of my trumpet career—not counting the time my high school dance band played at the Maine State Prison—was when my college jazz band had a gig in New York City at an alumni dance at a swanky club. It was my first visit to the Big Apple and I got quite a rush playing with a band in a Manhattan high-rise.

If I had possessed the talent, I would have liked to be a musician. But I didn’t. I became a good trumpet player, but not an especially talented one. I had no ear and lacked the ability to ad lib. I may have been good, but I was no Herb Alpert.

What NowThen again, who was? The guy has had an amazing career. Everyone knows that he’s the “A” in A&M records (Jerry Moss is the “M”), but a research tool I found on the Internet called Wikipedia has told me so much more. Did you know Herb Alpert co-wrote “A Wonderful World” with Sam Cooke? That the famous gang of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew played on the first Tijuana Brass albums? That the band had albums in Billboard’s top 10 for 81 consecutive weeks? This Wikipedia thing also informs me that the woman in the yellow dress with whom Herb kanoodles on the covers of the South of the Border and What Now My Love? was Jerry Moss’s wife. I did not know that.

So thanks, Herb, for getting me to play the trumpet. It was fun, except for all the damned practicing. The trumpet became an essential element of the way I saw myself. I was a trumpet player. I was a band kid. I was a musician.

I still have the trumpet. Just the other day I took the case down from its shelf in the closet and opened it up. The old familiar smell of valve oil immediately sent me tumbling back through the years. The trumpet lay nestled on its nest of bright-red artificial fur. I needed to find a rubber band to keep one of the spit valves closed, and the tuning slide was stuck and wouldn’t budge, but the trumpet remained playable. I lifted it from the case, inserted the mouthpiece, put the instrument to my lips, and played. It sounded terrible, but I was a musician again, even if it only for a few minutes.



Today I set the Wayback Machine for 1975: The Summer of Elton.

I turned 15 that summer and for my birthday I received a copy of Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which had been released in May. It became a large part of my soundtrack that year. It was, of course a vinyl album. This morning I loaded the digital equivalent—a huge batch of 1s and 0s that, through some magic of technology, became music—onto my iPod. And through another magic, this one of the imagination, I was transported back 42 years.

Elton John was huge that summer. Time magazine put him on its cover when Captain Fantastic came out. The album was a collection of autobiographical songs about the time when Elton (“just someone his mother might know”) and lyricist Bernie Taupin worked as struggling songwriters. It debuted at number 1 and stayed on the top of the charts for weeks. Its only single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” was ubiquitous on the radio. Elton played the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell’s film version of the Who’s Tommy that summer, and his version of the song got a lot of airplay, too. He was, in the words of another 1970s icon, kind of a big deal.

I can’t recall when I became a fan. My best friend, Bill, was one before I was. He owned Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and one day he came over to the house with his brand-new copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It was a double album and a big investment at the time. I remember being somewhat shocked by it—“Jamaica Jerk-off” seemed kind of dirty and the illustration for “All the Young Girls Like Alice” a little daring. Bill was always a little more risky in his musical tastes than I was. He liked Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad, and he told me how horrified his parents were when they saw the cover of Edgar Winter’s They Only Come out at Night. I was pretty conservative—Chicago and Steely Dan were more in my line.

My family had Elton John’s Greatest Hits, but Captain Fantastic was probably the first Elton album I owned. It came with a lyrics booklet; another booklet called “Scraps” that included photos, clippings and a comic outlining the careers of Elton and Taupin; and a fold-out of the album cover art.

Ah, yes, that album cover. There was a lot going on with that cover, all kinds of strange creatures and semi-human figures. Amid all the grotesques there was some kind of naked bird-faced women, with bare breasts and pubic hair. And below that was what appears to be a broken pot taking a shit. Here’s the official explanation from

CaptFan1“The album cover art by Alan Aldridge features images of Elton, Bernie and the band (animated elements of the artwork were used in a 30-second television commercial celebrating the release of the album). The front panel shows Elton breaking out of a dangerously dreary cityscape astride his piano while the back of the cover shows Bernie writing in a somewhat protected pastoral bubble. Keen-eyed fans can also identify Elton’s first music publisher Dick James and Bernie’s then-wife Maxine in the intricate illustration. Even more subtle is a visual reference to the This Record Company, one of Elton’s early record labels, which constructed their unofficial slogan, ‘Turning shit into hits…’ out of anagrams of the word ‘this.’”

Needless to say, there was plenty going on in that cover to amuse, titillate and baffle a 15-year-old.

I no longer have the copy I got for my birthday. I think I sold it when I had to jettison possessions before relocating from California to Maine after college. That’s a shame, because the album cover still bore the indentation of something I wrote when I had the sheet of paper on top of it. I sometimes thought of playing detective by placing a white sheet of paper over the cover and carefully rubbing the side of a pencil back and forth until I could read what I had written back in 1975. But I never did and now it will forever remain a mystery. I don’t think it’s much of a loss.

I had lost interest in Elton by college, anyway. After Captain Fantastic he began the long, slow decline that led to The Lion King. He ditched the band he had used for his biggest albums and things just weren’t the same. He’s still a big tour attraction but he’s not the big deal he used to be. In 2006 he released a sequel to Captain Fantastic, called The Captain and the Kid.  I’ve listened to it on Youtube and it seems fine. A friend burned me a copy of the album Elton did a few years ago with Leon Russell. I thought it was okay, but nothing to write a blog post about. Times have changed. In today’s fragmented pop-culture marketplace, can any artist capture the public attention the way Elton did in the 1970s, or the Beatles a decade before? I doubt it.

Because Elton was huge back then. He had a lot of hit singles, but was also known for his outrageous glasses and flamboyant costumes on stage. I thought the glasses could be pretty funny, but I wasn’t so wild about the pictures I saw of his campy live performances. Maybe it was amusing when he dressed up like Donald Duck, but to my 15-year-old self the antics just undercut the music. It was only rock and roll, but I didn’t want to laugh at it. Any gay subtext just passed right over my head (Elton wouldn’t come out for a few more years). To me, the onstage antics just seemed a little silly. They embarrassed me a bit. When you’re 15, it’s easy to get embarrassed.

A few years ago I heard an interview with Elton on the radio. I was impressed with how self-aware he seemed. He admitted that it had taken him a long time to grow up, that he had been self-absorbed and immature into his 40s. He said he was essentially jolted into maturity after he got to know Ryan White, the teenager from Indiana who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and eventually died from the disease. White had been thrust into the spotlight when his high school refused to let him attend classes because of his illness. After I listened to the interview, I had a renewed respect for Elton John.

He also talked about the ways the recording industry had changed. At one point he had been the biggest star on the planet; now he couldn’t even be sure if any of the surviving record stores would stock his latest releases. In this context, writing songs for Disney made sense, although I still found it hard to accept that they guy who did “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” also wrote the songs for The Lion King. But I’m willing to let it go.

When I played Captain Fantastic this morning, though, it was 1975 all over again. The acoustic guitar that opens the title track immediately shot me 42 years into the past. It was the summer of my first, sort-of, girlfriend, a relationship that took place largely over the telephone. It was a summer of bikes. My friends and I rode our bikes everywhere—all over town, and sometimes to the next towns over. It was a summer of comic books, swimming and boating on Lake Cobbossee, and “One of These Nights” by the Eagles.

It was also the summer of Jaws. The movie was also kind of a big deal back then. I saw it several times that summer and devoured two books about it, The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb (one of the script writers) and The Making of the Movie Jaws by Edith Blake. I still have both of them, and my copy of The Jaws Log contains newspaper clippings I cut out about the movie and sharks. I bought the single of the movie theme and later splurged to get the entire soundtrack album.

That summer my family went on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where Jaws was filmed. We could see the decaying hulk of Quint’s boat, the Orca, on the edge of Menemsha Harbor, so my brother and I rented a small sailboat and paid it a visit. This was the “sinking” Orca, the one used when Sheriff Brody has his final face-off with the big fish. We sailed out, climbed aboard, and took some pictures. I understand that the boat was later taken onto dry land and allowed to rot away. Outrageous! Now only the memories remain.

Sirius Radio recently reminded me of another relic from 1975, the hit single “Mr. Jaws.” This was one of those “break-in” records, where a narrator asks questions and the answers come in the form of snippets inserted from current hit songs. (Example: Q. “Mr. Jaws, before you swim out to see, is there anything else you would like to say?” A. [War] “Why can’t we be friends?”) It is, in a word, terrible, but the single managed to swim its way up the Billboard charts all the way to number three. People at the time found it funny. I find it encouraging that, in a mere 42 years, we have evolved as a species to a point beyond this.

There’s another bright side. When he recorded his classic comedy album A Star Is Bought in 1975, Albert Brooks used records like “Mr. Jaws” as inspiration for his own “Party from Outer Space.” Brooks recorded the album, he said, in an attempt to get airplay on every possible radio format. He aimed “Party from Outer Space” at the AM dial. In an attempt to save money on royalties, though, he decided not to use snippets from real records. He just made them up. Now that’s funny.

70s Squaw (lorez)

It doesn’t get much more ’70s than this. The Huntington family poses in front of the hotel at Squaw Mountain. That’s me looking pretty cool standing next to my dad.

Today the iPod reached back into the past and pulled out “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond. Yes, that Neil Diamond. Neil doesn’t get a lot of respect from music aficionados. He did write “I’m a Believer” for the Monkees, and UB40 had a hit with his “Red, Red Wine.” On the other hand, he’s responsible for some real dreck, like “I Am, I Said.” “Song Sung Blue” is catchy, but irritating. His duet with Barbra Streisand, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” is the song they play on a continuous loop in Hell. So, yeah, Neil doesn’t exactly radiate cool.

Still, I have a special fondness for “Cracklin’ Rosie,” his ode to having a time with a poor man’s lady and hitching on a twilight train. For me it’s a Squaw Mountain song, one of the hits I taped off the jukebox in the lounge at the ski area outside Greenville, Maine, where I spent many of my weekends back in the 1970s. Along with “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the juke box included the top hits of the day, like “Hitching a Ride” by Vanity Fair, “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce. While the adults sat around drinking Manhattans and wearing their après ski mukluks (this was the ’70s, remember), I’d drop a quarter in the jukebox and tape my selections on the tape recorder I had received for Christmas. That was the iPod of the time.

(To enjoy the wonderfulness of “Cracklin’ Rosie” for yourself, click here.)

After hearing “Cracklin’ Rosie” on my walk today, I decided to keep the Neil thing going and dialed up “Sweet Caroline.” This is the song the Red Sox play during the eighth inning of every home game. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Neil showed up unannounced at Fenway and asked if he could sing “Sweet Caroline” live for the fans. That was pretty cool. He also appears in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s concert film about the Band. I’ve never figured what he’s doing in that movie. I could look it up, but I prefer to retain a little mystery in my life.

Neil is still alive and kicking. Squaw Mountain is, too, but for a while it slipped into a coma. It went through a series of owners and finally hit rock bottom when its big chairlift failed and injured four skiers in 2004. The lift never reopened. The mountain struggled on with only its lower trails before shutting down completely in 2010. Vandals trashed the main lodge a few years ago. It was enough to break my heart. Losing Squaw made me feel like one of the connections to my younger self had snapped.

However, in 2012 some Greenville locals formed the nonprofit Friends of Squaw Mountain to reopen the mountain and they made a three-year deal with the owner to lease the ski area for $1 annually. Volunteers refurbished the lower lodge, obtained a groomer, and restarted the lower triple chair (which had replaced one of the T-bars I had known). The Friends launched fundraising efforts, including selling sponsorships for each chair on the lift for $500 apiece.

When I read about Squaw’s reopening I became determined to ski there again, even though I now live in distant Pennsylvania. Finally I got a chance. My mother was celebrating her 80th birthday, so my wife, Beth Ann, and I decided to visit my parents in Augusta to celebrate and then push on to Greenville to ski. I couldn’t wait to visit the mountain, where the memories lay as deep as January snow. Beth Ann and I departed Augusta at 7:00 on a frigid Saturday morning, with the outside temperature an impressive 23 degrees below zero. We headed north up I-95 and then wound through the through a familiar roll call of towns—Newport, Corinna, Dexter, Sangerville, Guilford, Abbott, Monson. On Indian Hill outside Greenville we finally got a view of Moosehead Lake, a white and frozen expanse stretching out below us. Big Moose Mountain (the state changed its name from Big Squaw in 2000) reared up to our left, frosted with snow and ice.

On our way to the mountain we passed my parents’ camp on the main road. When they bought it in 1972 for $5,500 it had just a single room. We added an upstairs (and by “we,” I mean mainly my older brother) by putting down planks to create a ceiling/floor and adding some pull-down stairs.

On Fridays after school we loaded up the family truck, a four-door Ford behemoth, while the dog grew increasingly excited about the impending road trip. Once my dad got home from work we embarked for the two-hour drive to Greenville, arriving at a very cold and dark camp. The first task was getting a fire blazing in the Franklin stove and lighting the oil burner, but winter was always very reluctant to release its grip. Once unpacked, we could sit by the fire and wait as the cold slowly retreated. When we could no longer see our breath we could remove our coats and eventually shed our sweaters. The weekend had truly arrived.

The kids—my brother, my younger sister, and me, plus the friend or two who came along for the weekend—hung up blankets to wall off our own territories upstairs while my parents stayed downstairs. We all slept in sleeping bags on folding cots (except for the dog, of course, who didn’t bother with a cot but did have a sleeping bag).

Camp didn’t have running water and we had to dump a bucket into the toilet to flush. We brought heavy containers of water to last us the weekend. If we ran out we drove down to Breton’s store in Greenville Junction to refill. We had no shower, either. That wasn’t so bad for a weekend visit but on longer stays we used the pool at the ski area’s hotel. Our parents relaxed in the adjacent Lumberjack Lounge, where they could watch through big plate-glass window as the kids swam. Sometimes we sat in the saunas until we could no longer stand the heat, and then rushed outside through the sliding glass doors to wage a snowball fight in wet bathing suits, our bodies steaming in the cold.

season passSaturday meant skiing. The mountain was only a few minutes away and we skied from the time the lifts opened until they shut down at 4:00. After some time in the lounge, it was back to camp for cocktail parties, where my parents would entertain friends who had come up for the weekend and the kids would hang out upstairs, reading comic books and cracking wise. Saturday nights meant watching the CBS lineup—All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart—on the tiny black and white TV. (If we changed channels someone had to go outside and manually turn the big aerial to get a decent picture.) By the time Carol Burnett came on my dad would be snoring so loud it shook the rafters.

When Beth Ann and I bumped our way up into the parking lot at Big Squaw’s refurbished lower lodge, the temperature had climbed to a relatively balmy -4. It seemed the cold had scared away all but the hardcores. We saw no one on the lift, and in the lodge found only a handful of hardly skiers plus the cheerful volunteers who sold tickets, rented equipment, and manned the grill. Beth Ann rented some skis, we bundled up in layers of warm clothing, and then we skied down to the new chair, the mountain’s only operating lift. It was still so cold the snow squeaked like Styrofoam beneath our skis.


The Squaw Mountain hotel, as it appeared when we skied there recently.

Some things remained consistent, such as the way the snow-dusted pine trees on the mountain seemed to shrink against the cold; or the silence on the chair, broken only by the lift’s whispery hum and the rubbery bumps when the cable passed over the wheels on each tower. The magnificent view remained the same, too—Mountain View Pond in the foreground, Moosehead stretching out beyond it toward the rounded humps of the Spencer Mountains, with the whaleback rise of Mt. Kineo visible to the north. But other things were different, and not for the better. When we skied down the Upper Fitzgerald we passed the buildings of the now-shuttered upper lodge and hotel. Sheets of plywood covered the glass doors to the pool. The restaurant and lounge were deserted and silent. The parking lot was empty. The jukebox, I’m sure, was long gone.

looking up

Looking up at the main mountain, now closed.

Most notably, since the chair to the top no longer operated, the entire upper part of the mountain remained frustratingly inaccessible. As I skied on this return visit, I stopped now and then to gaze wistfully at the glimpses I got of the upper trails, visible through the trees. I could see a bit of the Moose River, its course choked with growth, and some of the Piscataquis. They were now ghosts on the mountainside, just out of reach.

Later I waited for my wife outside the lower lodge, and a man asked me to take a picture of him and his teenage son. He told me they had driven up for the day from Dover-Foxcroft. I snapped a couple of shots with his camera phone. “He’s not getting taller than me, is he?” the man asked, pointing at his boy.

“Not yet, but he’s getting close,” I replied. Then the two of them skied down to the chairlift, ready to create some memories of their own.

franks world

Saturday, December 12, 2015, marks what would have been Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915, he rose from humble beginnings to become the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century. Anyone who delves into the so-called “Great American Songbook” owes a debt to Sinatra. He didn’t write the songs, but he used the force of his voice and his powerful personality to make them his own.

As a human being, though, to say that Sinatra was “flawed” is a bit of an understatement. He contained multitudes. He was tough and tender, mean and romantic, loyal and unforgiving, good and bad. He could turn his emotions up to 11 at the drop of a snap-brimmed hat, and there are many stories of one-time friends who crossed Sinatra and earned his everlasting hatred.

But with Sinatra, you have to take the good with the bad. It’s like the episode of “Star Trek” where the transporter splits the captain into two people: good Kirk and bad Kirk. Bad Kirk is a total dick. Good Kirk is a nice guy, but he lacks the balls to make the tough decisions a captain has to make. To be an effective commander, Kirk needs both sides of his personality.

Sinatra was like that. He was a smoldering cauldron of emotions: resentment, anger, envy, loneliness. He could also be incredibly giving, although always on his own terms. When the volcano inside him erupted in his ordinary life, the results were often not pretty. When he channeled that intense emotional life into his singing, the results could be transcendent. His artistry came with a price.

I can vividly remember when I became a Frank Sinatra fan. I was attending college in Los Angeles, living in an old apartment building on Vermont Avenue. My tiny room smelled of leaking gas and roach powder.

Shabby as it was, the place had its strong points. Right across from the front entrance was Benjy’s Liquor, and Benjy never carded. And the building had a big expansive roof, where I could sit on a late afternoon, watch the sun set over Los Angeles, drink the beer I had bought at Benjy’s, and listen to KROQ.

KROQ was Los Angeles’ “new wave” station. It played artists like the Plimsouls, XTC, Sparks, and Split Enz. It was not in the habit of playing Frank Sinatra. Yet one evening I was sitting on the roof, drinking a beer as the setting sun turned the sky the color of an orange popsicle, and the DJ played a song I recognized from my youth—the title track to Come Fly with Me. My Dad had the album. The song was brassy and upbeat, with muted trumpets kicking things off, and Frank singing about heading off to “llama land, where a one-man band, will toot his flute for you.” It hovered just the right side of self-parody. It also made me feel good hearing it. The next day I headed off to the used record stores on Fairfax Avenue and I bought a copy of the album. I still have it.

That was the beginning of my Sinatra fandom. The next album I bought was Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!, an album so swingtastic it required three exclamation points in its title. I found out later that this was the last album Sinatra had done for Capitol Records. The story goes that Sinatra walked into the studio and told arranger Nelson Riddle to pick up the tempo for all the numbers, without even hearing them. The album does have a rollicking pace, and the original vinyl version clocks in at less than 30 minutes. It does swing, though.

After graduating from college I returned to the East Coast, and I began dipping into my dad’s Sinatra albums. He had a copy of A Swingin’ Affair!, another great collaboration with Riddle. Some friends of my parents had left it behind after a party. (Their name was still written on the album.) Once I moved to Boston, I started buying more albums. One of the first was a collection called This is Sinatra!, which introduced me to the brassy charms of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” still one of my favorite Sinatra songs, and one of the first collaborations with Riddle.

I also bought a copy of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! It was one of the cheap reissues that Capitol released in the early 1980s. I didn’t find out until years later that the label dropped songs from these new versions to save money, probably to make pressing them cheaper. Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! originally had 15 tracks. Mine had a mere dozen. Among the missing were “Pennies from Heaven” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Even shortened, the album worked. The first time my future wife visited my apartment, I threw Swingin’ Lovers on the turntable. She was impressed by my savoir faire, or whatever it was. When we got married, our first song was Sinatra’s version of “More.”

All of which is a long way to say, happy birthday, Frank.

My salvaged loot.

My salvaged loot. And a pumpkin.

In many ways, Central Pennsylvania is much like the rest of the United States. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, dogs chase cats, birds perch on telephone wires, and human adults feed their young by regurgitating half-digested food directly into their mouths.

Oops. Sorry. That last one is birds, too. Except in some neighborhoods near Three Mile Island.

But there’s one we do differently here. And that’s Halloween.

In the rest of the United States, kids put on costumes and go trick or treating on Halloween night, which is October 31. We don’t do that here. For reasons that are lost to history, kids here go door to door and beg for candy on the Thursday before Halloween.

Why? Nobody seems to know. One theory I’ve heard is that the Powers That Be worried that when Halloween fell on Friday, trick or treating would interfere with the region’s secular religion, high school football. I’m not quite clear on the reasoning, since few high school kids still trick or treat. Maybe the feeling was, given the choice between candy or concussions, most adults would turn off their porch lights and head to a game, leaving children throughout the region sweet-deprived. It’s as good a theory as any.

To make things worse, there’s also an officially mandated time to trick or treat—6:00 to 8:00 p.m. No earlier, no later. Talk about government overreach!

In any event, even though today is the day before Halloween, here in Central PA it’s the day after trick or treating. When I went walking this morning, I found the evidence of last night’s activities scattered all over the sidewalks. Not just candy wrappers—by the time I got home, the pouch of my official Red Sox hoodie was bulging with a load of candy I had picked up along the way. I found Snickers, Butterfingers, Reese’s, Kit Kats, Jolly Ranchers, and even a packet of pretzels from some do-gooder’s house. (Seriously, dude. Next year buy some candy.)

When I was a kid, there was no way I would have been so careless with my sugary loot. Getting the maximum amount of candy possible was job one. My friends and I headed out with a clearly defined strategy so we could cover as much territory as humanly possible on Halloween night, and then we established base camp so we could resume our quest for candy at first light in the morning. Trick or treating was serious business, and we operated under the policy of “no candy left behind.” There was just no way we would leave a Snickers bar on the sidewalk. It was unthinkable.

This was also back when some people still handed out apples or even home-cooked desserts, like cupcakes. Imagine that! Then we started hearing stories about kids finding pins and razor blades in their apples, and people lacing cupcakes with drugs. Such stories soon reached the point of mass hysteria. Some local police stations offered to let people screen their candy through X-ray machines or metal detectors. I think anyone handing out apples today would soon find a SWAT team at the door.

Well, times change.

Nonetheless, I was amazed by the amount of abandoned candy this morning. There was one stretch of sidewalk where I recovered a goodie every 50 feet or so. It was strange. It made me think that something must have happened, something like this:

It’s 8:00. “Let’s keep going!” Johnny insists to his chums.

“Gee, Johnny, my parents said I had to come back at eight.”

“Yeah, Johnny. I have homework. Besides, I don’t need any more candy.”

“What? You don’t need more candy! What are you talking about? Come on, you sissies! I’m not quitting at 8:00! I’m going to trick or treat until I drop! Even if I have to do it alone!”

And so he does, stubbornly ringing doorbells, even at houses where the porch lights have been switched off. “Trick or treat, you idiots!” he sneers. As time passes, Johnny begins to see faces peering fearfully from around drawn curtains. “Go home!” people shriek from behind closed doors. “Go home before it’s too late!”

“Jerks!” Johnny hisses from behind his Jason hockey mask. “I’ll trick or treat as long as I want! Nothing’s going to stop me! Not even the devil himself!”

And then, after he leaves the porch of one darkened house and begins dragging his candy-laden pillowcase down the sidewalk, Johnny senses . . . something . . . behind him. He feels the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He wheels around, trying to peer through the eyeholes in his hockey mask. Was that a movement in the shadows? Something not quite . . . human? He walks a little faster. Maybe it’s time to head home, he thinks. I’ll tell the sissies I stayed out until 10!

What was that? Johnny wheels around again. “Who’s there?” he demands, unable to keep the fear out of his voice. He’s pretty sure he sees a form lurking in the darkness—something tall and—he doesn’t want to think of the word—slender. He reaches into his bag with shaking hands and pulls out a Butterfinger, which he hurls into the darkness. “Take that!” he yells. “And leave me alone!” He thinks he sees the shadowy figure pause by the piece of candy. He reaches into his bag and pulls out some peanut M&Ms. He pauses. No, not that. No need to waste peanut M&Ms. He grabs a bag of pretzels instead. Better. He throws that into the darkness and then he begins to run, pulling out pieces of candy from the bag and tossing them one by one over his shoulder to slow his pursuer. He hears soft footpads behind him, getting closer and closer, and the harsh panting breath of something that doesn’t sound quite human . . .

That’s what I imagined must have happened, anyway. Whatever it was, it provided me with a little motherlode of candy. I followed the trail of sweets down the sidewalk until I had to step around a big puddle of what appeared to be cherry Kool Aid. After that I didn’t find any more candy. Weird.

New Phil WoodsThe news hit me hard. Alto sax great Phil Woods had died at the age of 83. I learned about it as I listened to WXPN while driving to work. Then the DJ played Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu.”

That’s the song that introduced me to Phil Woods, as I’ve written about before. It was my gateway drug, so to speak. Slowly but surely, I began to accumulate his records, although I still have only a fraction of his entire output. The first album I bought was Floresta Canto, a collection of Brazilian-flavored songs done with an orchestra. But here’s the thing: I didn’t like it. With all those strings, it was too flowery for my tastes. I felt, truth be told, a little embarrassed when I listened to it. I was a teenager, and, like most teenagers, was very self-conscious about what was cool and what was not. An album of string-infused bossa nova songs was not cool.

I bet I would like Floresta Canto now, if I still had it. But I don’t, because I went back to the record store and exchanged it for another Phil Woods album they had in stock. This one was titled The New Phil Woods Album. I liked it much better, with the exception of the cover of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” that maudlin ode to self-pity. Even without lyrics, I still don’t like it much, although Woods does a nice enough job. But I loved the album’s opener, an 11-minute opus called “The Sun Suite.” It kicked off with Woods’ soaring, full-bore saxophone and then worked through various movements. Sure, there were a lot of strings and stuff in the middle, but in the final portion Woods and the band really started to swing, and it ended with some great saxophone honks. The album also had a superb medley of “Chelsea Bridge/Johnny Hodges” on side 2, with Woods playing some of it on soprano sax. This is still one of my favorite pieces of music, ever. I always thought this piece sounded so incredibly sophisticated, with some really tricky passages that Woods and his band navigated with ease. When I made tapes to play at my wedding reception, I put the medley at the end of one cassette, thinking it would provide a nice, classy break from the dance music so people could visit the buffet tables. It still sounds great.

I am not a very knowledgeable jazz aficionado, but there’s something about the Phil Woods saxophone sound that I find incredibly appealing. He had his own sound, his own voice. Although Woods was often compared to Charlie Parker (and the fact that he was once married to Parker’s widow, Chan, made those comparisons even easier to make), I preferred Woods. I thought his sax playing was more vibrant, more human. Hearing Phil Woods appear on a recording—like Thelonious Monks’s “Friday the 13th” from The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall—was like walking into a party of strangers and suddenly hearing a familiar voice from across the room.

ShowboatSo, as I said, I picked up a few Phil Woods albums over the years. I remember my joy when I found two of them—Song for Sisyphus and I Remember—in a cutout bin at a store on Hollywood Boulevard. I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered the two-disk Live from the Showboat at the big Goodwill book and record sale at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C. I had wanted that one for years. I had seen it at the record store where I got my first Woods fix, but it was a double album and a little out of my price range then.

Once I made the move from vinyl to CDs, I added a few of his disks to the collection. I even have one of his albums—Evolution—on cassette. It has liner notes by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who recalled the time when he first heard Woods, on Monk’s At Town Hall. “About halfway through a particularly wry Monk tuned called ‘Friday the 13th,’ there was a solo by what had to be the toughest alto player I’d ever heard, a real gunner, but smart and funny, too,” wrote Fagen. “The basic style was out of Bird and Cannonball, but this was a true original.” Fagen called Woods “the greatest living alto player.”

I was fortunate enough to see Woods live a few times. I saw him in Washington at One Step Down, a tiny jazz club on the outskirts of Georgetown. It was literally below street level, with low ceilings and booths lining the wall opposite the stage. As I recall, we had the booth right in front of the stage. I saw him a few years ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a gig at the Hilton hotel’s ballroom. At intermission, Woods sat in an easy chair in the hallway outside the ballroom, just hanging out. I tried to nerve myself up to say hello—he certainly seemed approachable enough—but I just couldn’t figure out what to say. I mean, I’m sure he’s heard it all before. So I let him alone and spared us both from the potential awkwardness.

Beth Ann and me in Paris, ready to find Phil Woods.

Beth Ann and me in Paris, ready to find Phil Woods.

My most memorable Phil Woods gig happened in the suburbs of Paris. Beth Ann, my then-girlfriend (and now my lovely wife) had won airline tickets to Amsterdam at a work event. We figured we’d fly to Amsterdam, hang out for a few days, and then take a train to Paris. Which we did. And at some point, as we were sitting on a train at a Métro station, I looked out the window and saw a huge poster advertising what seemed to be a city-wide jazz festival. One of the names listed jumped out at me. Phil Woods! But the train pulled out of the station before I could get any more information.

Somehow we figured out that the Woods show would take place while we were in town, and that we could get tickets at Tower Records. It was funny, but when we went to buy the tickets, guitarist Elliot Randall—who plays the solo on Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years”—was doing an in-store performance. All roads lead to Steely Dan, I guess. Then we had to figure out how to get to the show. It was way outside of town, but reachable by Métro. So we dressed up in our finest duds and got on the train.

Woods ticketAfter a long train ride, we reached our stop and figured we would just follow the crowd to find the venue. It turned out to be in a school gymnasium not far from the station. Outside in the lobby, a stand was selling bread and cheese and, of course, wine. We listened to the show while eating our bread and cheese, drinking our wine, and feeling very Parisian. Keep in mind that, even though I had taken French all through high school, my knowledge of the language was pretty much restricted to the lyrics of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” Getting there felt like something of a triumph.

Watching Woods play, I was always amazed by how easy he made it seem. He may have been tossing of these great flurries of notes, but he made it seem as natural as breathing, as fluid as quicksilver. The music just seemed to flow out of the saxophone. The guy was phenomenal.

There’s a video on YouTube of a master class that Woods taught in 2012. He mentions what is probably his most famous piece of recorded music, the sax solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Woods says a kid once came up to him and asked, “Are you the guy on the Billy Joel record?” Woods told him he was. The kid said, “Have you ever done anything on your own?” Woods says he keeps that statement on his “humble wall.” Not that he had reason to be humble. Phil Woods was one of the greats.

But SeriouslySome songs have a strange effect on me. It’s like when an archeologist opens a sealed Egyptian tomb and releases the air that’s been trapped inside for millennia. Such was the feeling I had the other day when the iPod played “Second Hand Store” by Joe Walsh, from the But Seriously, Folks album. I felt emotions from 37 years ago suddenly rise to the surface. I felt like I was about to head off to college.

People with only a casual acquaintance with Walsh’s career may think of him as a happy-go-lucky party dude. That’s an impression underscored by “Life’s Been Good,” the big single from But Seriously, Folks. It is a funny song, and I often quote my favorite line: “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.”

Anyone who really knows Joe Walsh’s work, though, understands that the dude can be a real downer, and I mean that in a good way. A strong streak of melancholy runs through many of his songs. People might like to party to “Rocky Mountain Way” from The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, but that album also has some world-class wrist-slitters like “Wolf” and “Days Gone By.” It winds up with the plaintive “Daydream (Prayer),” which goes like this:

Where, where are we going?
Where, where are we now?
Will, will it be over?
And will we, will we make it somehow?

Think that’s a buzz kill? The album So What? ends with “Song for Emma,” which is about Walsh’s daughter, killed in a car accident just before she turned three. Not really much of a party song. As a member of the Eagles, Walsh contributed my favorite song on Hotel California, “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” It’s a great tune, but happy it ain’t. Play that at a party and by song’s end everyone will be just staring at their shoes, feeling glum.

But I like it. What can I tell you? I like melancholy songs.

Joe Walsh must, too. In fact, most of But Seriously, Folks lives up to its title, because the tunes are serious, with lots of minor keys and sad, keening guitar solos. One of those sad songs is “Second Hand Store.”

So you keep on following directions until
Pretty soon you’re past it
Guess you shoulda known better,
and still It was fun while it lasted
You end up sittin’ in a second hand store
On display in a window
Wind up sittin’ in the bottom of a drawer
Any way the wind blows . . .

Then there’s “Indian Summer,” a regretful look at a vanished past. And “Inner Tube,” a melancholy instrumental that’s a perfect accompaniment for staring sadly into space. Hey, don’t get me wrong—It’s an excellent album, but “Life’s Been Good” shouldn’t fool you into thinking it’s a laff riot.

When I heard “Second Hand Store” today, it triggered a weird mix of emotions—anticipation, anxiety, a little bit of fear. You see, I bought the album in the summer of 1978. It was the summer after I graduated from high school, and I was getting ready to go to college. Although looking forward to heading off to school, I was also anxious about venturing off into the unknown. I knew I had to break up with my high school girlfriend—like killing Old Yeller, it was sad but necessary—and that my high school friends would soon be scattering to the four winds. Life as I knew it was coming to an end. It was like standing on a cliff overlooking a lake, and knowing you had to jump.

My school was only about 40 miles from home, so, truth be told, it wasn’t that much of a leap. Still, out of some perverse streak of personality, I had never set foot on the campus. Even when I accompanied a friend there for his interview, I never emerged from his car while he was inside getting grilled. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me. Oh, wait a minute, maybe I do: I was a teenager.

But Seriously, Folks was one of the albums that provided the soundtrack to that uncertain summer, my last few months of bagging groceries, floating around the lake on my parents’ boat, hanging out in the back parking lot at McDonald’s, and wondering what was in store for me.

Once I got to college, said goodbye to my parents, unpacked, and got settled into my dorm room, I wandered over to the college bookstore and thumbed through the records in the little cutout section it had. My heart leapt when I found a copy of So What? for a cheap cutout price. It became the first album I purchased as a college student, and it provided a little bit of continuity as I set out on my new life. I still have that album—a little flood damaged, with the jacket held together with masking tape. Which, I guess, could serve as a metaphor for my condition, 37 years later.

By the way, if Joe Walsh decides to run for president again, he’s got my vote.


June 2019
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