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.

I wrote the following piece as part of a book proposal that never got off the ground. I thought the occasion of Sinatra’s 100th would be a good time to share it.

“He’s hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead.”

Rolling Stone once used that line for a cover story about Jim Morrison. They could use it today to describe Frank Sinatra. Since his death in 1998, the legendary vocalist has appeared in slick ads for Jack Daniels. He provided the soundtrack (and the style) for vodka ads featuring Sean “Diddy” Coombs. He has become an avatar of cool for the hip-hop generation, the Original Gangsta. HBO recently ran a two-part series about Sinatra, part of the build-up to the commemoration of what would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday on December 12, 2015.

“Frank Sinatra was the 20th century,” said Bono, vocalist for U2, when he saluted the still-living legend in 1994. “He was modern; he was complex; he had swing and attitude. He was the big bang of pop.” Bono knew what he was talking about. Sinatra is arguably the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. Yet he came dangerously close to becoming little more than a footnote in musical history, just one of the strange fads that appeared during World War II. During late 1940s and early 1950s, Sinatra watched his career disintegrate. His label and movie studio dropped him, his audiences grew up and stayed home, and his voice failed. It could all have ended then, not with some swing but with a whimper, and we would have never heard Sinatra’s work with Nelson Riddle, or great albums like Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!

Fortunately for Sinatra and for musical history, Capitol Records came calling. Even more important, the label decided to pair Sinatra with arranger Nelson Riddle. On the surface, the two men seemed remarkably similar. Both hailed from New Jersey, the only children of dominating mothers. Both emerged from the big band era and spent time with Tommy Dorsey’s band. In reality, though, Sinatra/Riddle was an unlikely pairing. Sinatra was—well, Frank Sinatra. He was a hot-tempered boozer and brawler who wore his nerves on his sleeve. Riddle was more subdued (although he did father a child out of wedlock with singer Rosemary Clooney). He was quiet, brooding and introspective, with a sardonic sense of humor produced during a grim childhood. “We didn’t feel the Depression at all, because my father created his own Depression,” he once said. “It was all the same to us because we were already in a depressed state by the time the Depression got there.” Riddle was also a musical genius with a knack for surrounding vocalists with artful, playful arrangements. By the time Capitol teamed him with Sinatra, Riddle had already had arranged hits for Nat King Cole and others, but he found his greatest musical collaborator in Sinatra. “The man himself somehow draws everything out of you,” Riddle once said. “And I always felt that my rather placid disposition had a beneficial effect on him. I was able to calm him down sometimes. He would start snapping at somebody and I would say, ‘Come on, pal, what’s the point of doing that?’ He’d give me a hard look, then he’d stop.”

Riddle never became part of Sinatra’s high-living Rat Pack, but he played a central role in the singer’s life. He helped create Sinatra forge a signature sound that defined, in its way, a portion of the mid-twentieth century. Their collaboration created “one of the greatest bodies of music in all of American popular culture,” wrote musicologist Will Friedwald in his book about Sinatra’s recordings. “In truth virtually all the Sinatra-Riddle albums are masterpieces, their collaboration being sanctified from the first downbeat counted off at the first session onward.”

And it almost never happened.

Frank Sinatra was fast approaching rock bottom when he went out on the stage at the Copacabana for the last show on April 26, 1950.

The bobby soxers who had shrieked for Frankie were long gone. George Evans, the press agent whose behind-the-scenes manipulation of those bobby soxers had helped turn Frankie into the biggest thing in music, had died back in January. Frank’s marriage to wife Nancy, strained after years of infidelities, finally blew following the revelations of his affair with actress Ava Gardner. His record sales were in free fall. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer had dumped him.

Things got even worse for the Voice at the Copa. Sometime around 2:00 a.m. that morning, Sinatra approached the mike to start his final show of the night. He opened his mouth to sing—and nothing came out. “Just dust,” he said. The small audience stared at Sinatra. Sinatra stared back at them. “I was never so panic-stricken in my life,” he said. Finally, the singer managed to whisper “Good night” and walked offstage.

It hadn’t been so long since Frank Sinatra had been on top of the world. He had come a long way from Hoboken, where he was the only son of a force of nature named Dolly Sinatra and Antony Martin Sinatra, her sometimes dock worker/bartender/boxer husband. Born in Hoboken on December 12, 1915, Francis Albert Sinatra decided at an early age he wanted to be a singer. The story goes that he attended a Bing Crosby show one night and told his girlfriend (and future wife) Nancy Barbato, “Someday that will be me up there.” He sang and toured with a local trio that made a splash on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour as the Hoboken four, but he got his big break as a singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin, a roadhouse in Englewood, New Jersey. One night trumpeter and bandleader Harry James came in to size up the local talent. “He’d sung only eight bars when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising,” James recollected about the first time he heard Sinatra. “I knew he was destined to be a great vocalist.” Sinatra signed with James in February 1939, at $75 a week.

He didn’t stay with James for long. By the end of the year he was aiming higher—at Tommy Dorsey, leader of the number one band in the country. In January 1940 Sinatra left the struggling James band—Harry tore up the contract—and signed with Dorsey for $125 week. The next year Billboard picked Sinatra as the nation’s top vocalist. He learned a lot from Dorsey, most notably by watching how the bandleader played his trombone, especially how he controlled his breathing to create the smooth legato for which he was known. “He would take a musical phrase and play it all the way through seemingly without breathing for 8, 10, maybe 16 bars,” Sinatra said in an article for Life magazine in 1965. “Why couldn’t a singer do that, too?” he wondered. Sinatra also listened to the violin playing of Jascha Heifetz, the way the violinist played without taking a break in the melody line. “It was my idea to make my voice work in the same way as a trombone or a violin—not sounding like them, but ‘playing’ the voice like those instruments.”

Another thing Sinatra learned was the value of the microphone. “Many singers never learned to use one,” he said. “They never understood, and still don’t, that a microphone is their instrument.” Sinatra understood that perfectly well, and had a keen sense of the way amplification offered the singer an almost intimate bond with the listener.

But although Sinatra owed a lot to Dorsey, it wasn’t long before he was straining at the leash. Dorsey may have been known as “the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” but in reality he was a tough-as-nails taskmaster with an explosive temper. Long before Sinatra’s three-year contract was up, the ambitious singer decided he wanted to strike out on his own. One motivation was an overture by Manie Sacks of Columbia Records, who encouraged Sinatra to record solo for his label. Unlike James, Dorsey wasn’t quite so willing to tear up a contract. He insisted on extracting plenty of cash in exchange for Sinatra’s freedom. The deal sparked rumors that the mob had played a role (as portrayed in fictionalized form in The Godfather), and it left a good deal of bitterness behind. “I hope you fall on your ass,” Dorsey told his now ex-singer.

Dorsey got his wish, but it took almost a decade for it to happen. First, Sinatra ascended to dizzying heights of fame and adulation, starting with a gig opening for the Benny Goodman band at New York’s Paramount Theater on December 20, 1942. By then the young women known as bobby soxers had embraced the young Sinatra with an emotional frenzy. Something about the strangely vulnerable (on stage, anyway), skinny young man with the oversized bow ties, the aching voice and the blue eyes set them ablaze. His gig at the Paramount became a sensation. Singer Peggy Lee said there was something “electric” when Sinatra came on stage. “We used to lean out the windows of the dressing room to see the crowd of swooners, like swarms of bees down there in the street, just waiting for the sight of Frankie,” she said.

Sinatra’s press agent, George Evans, claimed some of the credit, saying he paid bobby soxers to swoon and cause a scene. But anyone could see that Sinatra’s appeal was more than just flackery. Young women screamed his name, mobbed him, and nearly strangled him when they grabbed at his bow ties. His voice was full of yearning; they yearned for him. Sinatramania grew and grew, as he hosted Your Hit Parade on radio and appeared in films and on stage. Sinatra, who had a perforated eardrum that kept him from being drafted, attributed some of the hysteria to his role as the stand-in for all the young men who were overseas.

Sinatra signed with Columbia Records in 1943, but a musicians’ strike kept him from recording new material with a band. To get around the strike, Sinatra recorded some a Capella records and even charted a hit single with the re-release of the Harry James version of “All or Nothing at All.” When the recording ban finally ended 1944, Sinatra embarked on his first great musical partnership, with arranger/conductor Axel Stordahl. The two had met in Dorsey’s band, where Stordahl did some arranging. The bald, pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing Stordahl looked like a music professor, and he wrapped Sinatra’s voice in almost classical arrangements. John Rockwell described the recordings they did together as “a wash of strings and lush, neo-Tchaikovskian arrangements to accompany Sinatra’s gorgeous, lyrical, intimate, introspective ballad singing.” On the strength of his work with Stordahl, Sinatra earned the nickname of “The Voice.” But, let’s face it; those recordings were a little boring.

The bobby soxers who swarmed his live performances were anything but bored. Things peaked in October 1944 and the “Columbus Day Riots. Sinatra was booked for a return engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater, the same venue where he had launched his solo career. On October 11, a school holiday, the bobby soxers were waiting for him in droves, perhaps as many as 10,000, standing in long lines that stretched down the street and around the block. Trouble broke out when the fans inside for the first show refused to give up their seats for those waiting outside.

“For Sinatra that stand at the Paramount was a kind of culmination, the final explosive orgy of his cult of youth,” wrote James Kaplan in his 2010 biography. He was still popular, but he had apparently peaked. His young followers were growing up. The war was ending, and a resumption of normal life beckoned.

Sinatra did what he could to hasten his decline. More and more he became a topic in gossip columns—if he wasn’t slugging newspaper columnists, he was squiring women not his wife around town. It was not good for his image. His very public affair with smoldering actress Ava Gardner finally put an end to his marriage with Nancy, while his left-leaning politics caught the attention of the FBI.

The musical front was just as rocky. In 1950, producer Mitch Miller took over as chief of recording at Columbia Records. Miller’s work with Sinatra would mark the nadir of the singer’s career, culminating with the now infamous “Mama Will Bark,” in which Sinatra shared vocal duties with the Swedish model Dagmar and a man howling like a dog. (Of Miller, Sinatra biographer John Rockwell wrote, “His taste was so silly that he seems in retrospect to have been placed on this planet for the express purpose of heralding rock’s cleansing passion.”) Miller’s arrival at Columbia’s helm was the beginning of the end for Sinatra’s stint at the label. He and Columbia finally parted ways in 1952.

Things were about to get better.

Capitol Records was founded in 1942 by two songwriters—Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva—and one record store owner—Glenn Wallichs, who owned Music City in Hollywood.

Financed by $25,000 of Mercer’s money, the fledgling label managed to survive the war years despite a lack of shellac to make records and the recording ban that had also hobbled Sinatra’s start with Columbia. By the time Sinatra signed in 1953, Capitol was going strong.

A lot of people took credit for getting Sinatra to his new label. Singer Jo Stafford, who recorded for Capitol, said she suggested to Dave Dexter, Jr., a producer at Capitol, that he sign Sinatra. Dexter went to see Sinatra perform, was sufficiently impressed by what he heard (the singer had bounced back from his throat woes), and gave the label a favorable report.

Alan Livingston, Capitol’s A&R vice president, remembered it differently. Livingston said he received a call from Sinatra’s new agent, Sam Weisbord of William Morris, to see if Capitol was interested. “Sinatra had hit bottom, and I mean bottom,” Livingston recalled for author Charles L. Granata. “He couldn’t get a record contract, and he literally, at that point, could not get a booking in a nightclub. It was that bad—he was broke, and in a terrible state of mind.”

Livingston signed him anyway.

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.

Continuing on the subject of TV theme songs . . . Another theme that popped up on the iPod the other day was the one from “The Munsters.” So, naturally, my thoughts turned to . . . lunch boxes.

When I was in kindergarten, I had a Munsters lunch box. This was back in the glory days for these metal containers. Every middle-class kid like me had one. They came with a matching thermos, and they always retained an odor of sour milk, peanut-butter-and-jelly, and apples. Most importantly, the lunch box exterior bore images from some pop cultural touchstone, usually a TV show or movie. Although I have it from good authority that the most popular lunch box of all was Peanuts.

I don’t think kids use lunch boxes anymore. It seems they’ve been replaced by backpacks.

I’m not sure why I was the proud possessor of a Munsters lunch box. I don’t recall being a big fan of the show. For a long time I called it ”The Monsters,” and was mildly irked that everyone else seemed to be mispronouncing it. My parents thought the show was funny, so maybe they persuaded me to pick that particular box. Every day I would trudge off for the miles-long hike to school with the plastic handle of the lunch box clenched in one little hand, and every day I would retrace my steps home, with my school papers stuffed inside the box, along with my sandwich crusts and maybe an apple core.

One day, I returned home and opened the lunch box, only to find, to my shock and horror, that I had taken another boy’s Munsters lunch box by mistake. I recall being quite upset when I discovered the remains of someone else’s lunch and—worst of all—someone else’s schoolwork, which wasn’t even close to being up to my standards. I think my mother called the other boy’s home to sort everything out. I had to lie down with a case of the vapors.

bond lunchbox1

Bond lunchbox images via Bond art.

I upgraded when I entered the second grade. I got a James Bond lunch box. This one featured scenes from a bizarro universe hybrid of Thunderball and Goldfinger. Bond’s Aston Martin was on one side, and the hydrofoil boat from Thunderball was on the other. There were frogmen, too. Once again, I am slightly mystified by why I picked this particular container. I had never seen a Bond film at that point, although I had once met Ian Fleming at a cocktail party.* I suspect my father might have influenced me in my lunch box choice. He had a number of Bond paperbacks, which I read avidly years later.

The Bond was my last lunch box. After that, I upgraded to hot lunches. Lunch boxes were for kids.

Bond lunchbox2Some time ago, I visited the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. I found it to be a pretty interesting place, but the exhibit about James Bond really stopped me in my tracks. There, inside a glass case, was an example of my James Bond lunch box. A piece of my childhood, preserved as a museum piece. It was enough to make a guy feel old.

*Full disclosure: The statement about Ian Fleming is a lie. I never met him—but he did once invite me to his Jamaican estate, Goldeneye.**

**Sorry. Another lie.

TVGuideI have a bunch of TV theme songs on my iPod, “Get Smart,” “Mission Impossible,” “Star Trek,” and “The Rockford Files” among them. The other day I heard perhaps the most iconic one of all. It goes something like this:

Da da da da da da da da
da da da da da da da da

You know the song.

Written by big band veteran Neil Hefti (who also arranged Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass for Ol’ Blue Eyes), this was the theme song for the TV show that debuted in 1966 and became a national phenomenon. I was six years old at the time, and it rocked my world.

I remember watching the first episode with my parents and my older brother. (My sister was probably there, too, but she was only two years old and probably wasn’t into Batman.) My parents kept laughing at the show, which ticked me off. They laughed when Batman (the inimitable Adam West) went to a bar and ordered orange juice. (What’s wrong with that? It’s a fine beverage!) They roared when he went on the dance floor and did the Batusi. (Okay, not terribly superheroic, but not funny either, to my six-year-old perception). To me, this was serious business. You did not laugh at the caped crusader, even if he was wearing purple tights with what appeared to be a pair of panties pulled over them.

Now, of course, I realize that laughter was expected. Batman was supposed to be campy and tongue-in-cheek. Back then, though, I thought camp meant sleeping outside, and the humor soared way over my head. I just enjoyed it as an exciting adventure show.

There were two things about Batman that made it stand out at the time. First, it aired twice a week. Second, it was in color. And get this, kids of today: When the series debuted, my family did not have a color television. But our next-door neighbors did, and sometimes we went over to their house to watch Batman. The show was in vivid, eye-popping hues—the better to sell color TVs, I guess—and seeing it in its full glory was quite a treat for us at the time.

There was another great thing about Batman. During the fight sequences the show superimposed sound-effect balloons over the action: “Bam!” “Pow!” “Sock!” This offered me a great way to irritate my older brother. I simply read them out loud.

“Bam!” I would say.

“Be quiet!” he would reply.




“Make him stop!”

Eventually parental pressure would force me to end my reading, but I always sat back with a sense of quiet satisfaction.

It was around this time that our aunt and uncle paid us a visit from California. They brought Batman kits for my brother and me. I think each kit had a mask and maybe a cape. Best of all, each came with a yellow utility belt, complete with a grappling hook and a bat-a-rang (and probably some other stuff that I can’t recall). Someplace in the depths of my muscle memory I can still vaguely recall the feel of catching the yellow grappling hook on some convenient object and reeling it to me, or maybe me to it. I was still a little guy, after all.

We were not alone in our love for the Batman. The series was a huge hit, at first. Then people began to tire of the formula. The show went from twice a week to once, and then not at all.

The television Batman was neither the first nor the last adaptation of the comic book hero. There had been serials made in the 1940s and many movies since. The last three were brooding, super-serious films by director Christopher Nolan. I thought they were all way too long and pretentious and sank beneath their weight of their own self-importance. They were nothing at all like the Batman movie based on the TV series, which reached theaters in 1966. I saw it in downtown Augusta at the Colonial Theater. I loved it.

Of course, the humor flew right over my crew cut.

For instance, early in the movie, the dynamic duo (that’s Batman and Robin, natch) find themselves stuck onto a magnetic buoy in the middle of the ocean as a torpedo rapidly approaches. The situation seems hopeless—and then the movie cuts to Batman and Robin zipping across the water in the Batboat. Huh? How on earth . . . ? Batman casually mentions a heroic porpoise that jumped in front of the torpedo and saved them. All us kids just looked at each other and wondered, “How did we miss that?” We didn’t understand that the jump cut was part of the joke—we just figured the projectionist screwed up.

It wouldn’t have been the only time an Augusta projectionist fell asleep at the switch. When I was about eight, we all trooped to the other theater in downtown Augusta, the Capitol, to see a movie called Alaskan Safari. It had been heavily hyped in TV commercials as a roadshow attraction that breezed into town for just a day or two. We dutifully got our tickets and watched the show. Halfway through it, the end credits rolled. Then the movie resumed at the point where it had been about a half-hour earlier. The projectionist had mixed up the reels.

“Obviously some kind of post-modern approach to filmmaking,” I told my pals after the show, as I smoked a candy cigarette and fussed with my beret. “It’s the kind of cut-and-paste technique that William S. Burroughs used for Naked Lunch.”

“I preferred the more realistic approach Burroughs took with Junkie,” a pal replied.

“You have a conventional mind,” I sneered. If my cigarette had been real, I would have blown smoke in his face.

Such was life in back in the 1960s. Tell this stuff to the kids today, and they won’t believe you.

PDPIs it possible to feel unhappy when you hear “U Li La Lu” by Poi Dog Pondering?

Maybe for some people. But not for me.

The song is from the 1990 album Wishing like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea. I bought the CD from one of those record clubs back when I was living in Washington. It seemed like a good way to fulfill my obligations, and indeed it was. I’m still listening to it a quarter-century later. It’s an infectious mélange of catchy music, one great, catchy tune after another.

The band came from Hawaii, I think, via Texas, or something like that. I saw them in D.C., shortly after the album came out, when a friend offered me an extra ticket he had for a performance at the old 9:30 Club. It remains one of the best shows I ever saw—a joyful, upbeat, communal sort of affair that left everyone feeling just plain happy. When I saw them, Poi Dog Pondering was a big band with all kinds of instruments up on the stage—violin, guitars, trumpet, bass, accordion, ukulele, percussion—and the musical influences seemed like they came from all over the globe. It all mixed together into music that just lifted my spirits.

I almost saw Poi Dog a second time. The band was booked for a return appearance at the 9:30 just after my wife and I, with a baby in tow, had moved out of Washington, D.C. to Silver Spring, Maryland. Although now creatures of the suburbs, we resolved to retain at least some remnant of our former urban existence. So what if the show was on a weeknight, and we’d be tired, and we needed a babysitter, and what about parking? We were going. I got tickets and we arranged for a sitter. On the evening of the show, we jumped into the car (a Volvo, for godssakes. Boy, did that car suck) and drove into town. We pulled into a parking place RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CLUB! The gods appeared to be smiling upon us. It’s possible that Beth Ann and I even exchanged high fives.

Then we got out of the car and read the hand-written sign taped to the door. The show had been cancelled.

I think you could hear the air escaping from our bodies as we deflated. We sadly climbed back into the Volvo and made way back home to the suburbs. We never went into the city again.*

Twenty-five years later and now I listen to Poi Dog Pondering on my iPod as I walk around my current suburban neighborhood, and the music still makes me feel happy as it drags my mind back to those long-ago years of the 1990s.

There are some lines from the lilting and wistful “Big Beautiful Spoon” that still resonate. They go like this:

Sometimes I live in the past
I know that is true
I’m romantic to melancholy
You know that’s true too.
The past is a shoe box
Full of old songs and photographs.
I dig in and wade though.
I learn from the past.

I’m not sure how much I actually learn from the past, though. Except, maybe, for one thing: Avoid Volvos.

*Okay, that last sentence is not even remotely true. But it makes the story sound a lot sadder, doesn’t it?

Over nite sensationI went on a little Frank Zappa jag this morning. Currently, I have only four Zappa tunes on my iPod, so I played them all, starting with “Camarillo Brillo,” which the iPod brought up all by its lonesome to get me going.

“Camarillo Brillo” is from the Over Night Sensation album, which happens to be the first Zappa album I ever owned. My brother got it for me as a birthday present—probably in the summer of 1978. I think he wanted to trick me into playing “Dinah-Moe Humm” while my parents were in the room. Being savvy enough to read the lyrics first, I avoided falling into his trap.

Flash forward a couple summers. My brother and I are both had summer jobs at a Mexican restaurant in Gardiner, Maine, called Bravo’s. I started as the dishwasher on the day the restaurant opened, and got a battlefield promotion to cook that evening. My brother had just graduated from M.I.T., so he had all the qualifications necessary for the post of dishwasher. He did a pretty good job, too. It was a real testament to the value of a good college education.

We both put in long hours at Bravo’s that summer, but we had fun. There was a little radio in the kitchen and we’d keep it on all day. In the afternoons the kitchen crew would listen to Paul Harvey as he told us “the rest of the story” in his inimitable way, with his odd diction and emphasis. We loved Paul Harvey. But for the rest of the day we’d usually listen to WBLM. On weekdays the station had a regular feature where they’d dedicate a song to a business each lunchtime. One day I called and requested they play “Camarillo Brillo” for Bravo’s. And, by god, they did! It was quite a rush. Which should be pretty obvious, because I’m writing about it almost 34 years later. (I had to check the math there a couple of times, because I found it hard to believe. But it’s true. Thirty-four years!)

After hearing “Camarillo Brillo” this morning, I listened to the Zappa song most everybody knows, which is “Montana,” with its references to dental floss, pygmy ponies and zircon-encrusted tweezers. What you might not know is that Tina Turner sings background vocals on the song. Ike, being the total dick that he was, refused to let her receive a credit because he just didn’t get it. “Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this thing that she went into the next studio where Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labour,” Zappa recalled, in an interview Barry Miles used in his biography. “He listened to the tape and he goes, ‘What is this shit?’ and walked out.” Zappa also plays a killer guitar solo on the song, so maybe Ike was jealous.

Next up: “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” from the Zappa and the Mothers album Weasels Ripped my Flesh. Great song. It made me think of the time I went to a party at the friend of a friend’s in Riverside, California. I didn’t know anyone except the people I came with, but that didn’t stop me from commandeering the turntable. It was located behind the bar, which made it easy for me to block access and prevent anyone from playing what I considered bad music. I remember one young woman was very vocal about wanting to hear some Journey. I played Weasels Ripped my Flesh instead.

The fourth song I listened to this morning was “Muffin Man.” It’s one of Zappa’s sillier songs, with Captain Beefheart on vocals, but it does have another killer guitar solo. And Zappa gets to say “poot.” Twice. It seems to amuse him. Zappa later revisited the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen from “Muffin Man” on Joe’s Garage. It must have been a part of his “conceptual continuity,” in which various subjects—the mud shark, poodles, Sears ponchos, and other such things—resurface in different songs.

I got to see Zappa in concert several times at venues on both sides of the country. It was always memorable. The first show was in Portland, Maine, probably in the summer of 1979. A college friend and a bunch of his pals were heading down for the show and I tagged along at the spur of the moment. I did not know it at the time, but my best friend Bill was working security at the show, standing in front of the stage in a yellow shirt, probably with his arms crossed and a fierce expression on his face. I was struck by one of Zappa’s roadies, a big, bald guy who reminded me of Zippy the Pinhead. During the show he sat on some of the speakers on the side of the stage and just watched the crowd. I was excited when, years later, I watched the Zappa film Baby Snakes and recognized him.

The second time I saw Zappa, it was in Santa Barbara, California. My friend Brad and I decided, again on a whim, to drive up from Los Angeles in my faithful 1975 Toyota Celica and see the show. We didn’t have tickets but figured we’d buy them at the door. But when we arrived, there was a long line at the box office, and the show was about to start. Just then a guy walked by peddling two tickets. We grabbed them at face value. They were about 17 rows back, right in the center. We sat down just as Zappa hit the stage and kicked things off with “Montana.” Pretty cool!

The third time was in Santa Monica. Young guitar whiz Steve Vai was in the band for this one, and Zappa gave him room to shine. The best thing about the show was the way it opened. The band started playing, and I knew I recognized the song. But what was it? I racked my brains trying to identify it until it finally came to me: It was the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” played perfectly straight, no fooling around, no making fun. And it was awesome. I have a studio version of it someplace on a promotional EP. (Note: I just found the set list from this show—“Whipping Post,” it turns out, was the second song the band played. And it was the late show. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?)

I was back on the East Coast the fourth and last time I saw Zappa. It was an outdoor concert someplace outside Salem, Massachusetts. Probably the spring of 1985. I gave a lift to a music writer who contributed to the little rock magazine I edited. I think he had interviewed Zappa for me, and was reviewing the concert for the Boston Globe. We parked someplace in the woods and then followed the crowd down a narrow trail until we emerged into this little natural amphitheater with a stage at one end. It was raining and the night promised to be wet and uncomfortable. Then Zappa came out on stage. He looked up into the sky. “Make it stop!” he said.

And the rain stopped. I am not making that up.

(I found this set list, too, and it turns out he ended this show with “Whipping Post.”)

I listened to a fair bit of Zappa in my college and immediate post-college years. There’s a lot of fantastic musicianship on his albums, but also a lot of painfully juvenile stuff, too, like parts two and three of Joe’s Garage, which are pretty much unlistenable (except for “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” which is a great instrumental).

A little while ago I read Barry Miles’ Zappa biography, and I came away from it well informed but somewhat depressed. I did not much care for the man it portrayed. Zappa appeared to have an all-encompassing contempt for humanity (with the possible exception of Frank Zappa), and I think this corrosive attitude ate into his music. After all, it was Zappa who said, “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.” I can’t really argue with that, but when Zappa set out to attack stupidity in his songs, he set his sights pretty low. He took potshots at flower power, hippies, valley girls, and Peter Frampton. Yes, he took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center over music censorship. Occasionally he did songs about bigger societal issues, such as race on “Trouble Coming Every Day” and “Uncle Remus.” But more often than not he seemed content to show how smart he was by composing complex and demanding music, and then added puerile lyrics to demonstrate that he didn’t care what you thought.

Miles tells a story in his book that provides insight on Zappa’s attitude. In 1965, an undercover copy offered Zappa $100 to make a porno recording. It apparently consisted of Zappa and his girlfriend moaning and groaning while they jumped up and down on a bed and attempted to stifle their laughter. It seems pretty silly today, but back in 1965 it was enough to get Zappa arrested. Even the judge couldn’t help laughing when he heard the tape. Still, Zappa was found guilty and spent 10 days in Tank C at the San Bernardino County Jail. “It was the worst experience of Zappa’s life,” Miles wrote. “There were 44 men crammed together in the cell in temperatures reaching 104 degrees. The lights were on day and night, so the inmates couldn’t sleep. Zappa didn’t shave or shower the entire time he was in there, the facilities were so dirty.” Miles asserts that Zappa “was a different person when he came out . . . . Tank C traumatized him for life and in many ways he spent the rest of his career shoving his pornographic tape down America’s throat, time and time again. He was determined to show Americans what their country was really like.”

In his biography, Miles writes, “Zappa was a social reformer, filled with righteous anger and a sense of profound outrage at the stage of his country. He looked deeply into the murky side of society, but refused to look at himself.”

Frank Zappa isn’t around to agree or disagree with that assessment. He died in 1993 of prostate cancer. Love him or hate him, you have to agree that he was one of a kind.

Yes, it's true. He must.

Yes, it’s true. He must.

When I first saw the news, I literally gasped. Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, had died at the age of 83. Nimoy’s death surely marks the end of an era. He had been a vital part of the Star Trek universe from its beginnings almost 50 years ago. You could even say that it was his character—the logical half-human half-Vulcan—that really made the series something unique. The pointed ears, the Moe Howard haircut, the nerve pinch—there was nothing like that on TV in the 1960s. The character was so unusual, in fact, network publicists airbrushed the points off his ears for the first press kits because they were so worried about the reaction. Spock, of course, became a pop culture sensation, even though his popularity was not enough to keep the series alive for more than three seasons. Unlike most failed series, though, Star Trek enjoyed an afterlife that made it even bigger than it had been before.

Today I honored Nimoy’s memory on my morning walk by listening to the soundtrack from the Star Trek episode called “The Doomsday Machine.” It’s about a huge space vehicle of unknown origin that looks like a cornucopia wrapped in tinfoil. As it makes its way through the galaxy, the machine chews up any solar systems it encounters. It also tries to eat a Federation starship called the USS Constellation. The only survivor is Commodore Decker, played by William Windom. (As the Ahab-like Decker, Windom chews up scenery the way the doomsday machine eats planets.) Captain Kirk gets stuck on the Constellation, while Decker takes over the Enterprise and plans a doomed attack on the planet killer. Dr. McCoy and Spock contrive to get Decker relieved of command, Kirk gets beamed back to the Enterprise at the last possible second, and Decker’s self-sacrifice when he flies a shuttlecraft down the alien vehicle’s maw provides a clue to the way to destroy the machine. It’s an entertaining episode, and deep thinkers can even find parallels to the Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.

“The Doomsday Machine” was one of the last of the original Star Trek episodes that I caught in syndication. I remember it well. It aired late on a Friday afternoon. My family was heading up to our camp near Moosehead Lake that day, and I knew we would leave for the two-hour trip north as soon as my father got home from work. Still resentful from the time my parents refused to come home early from Moosehead one weekend so I could catch Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster at the local theater, I doubted they would delay our departure just so I could watch an episode of Star Trek, but they did. I sat in front of the TV with my cassette recorder so I could tape the show’s audio. Remember, this was in those prehistoric days before VHS tape, much less TIVO and “watch on demand.”

I have the music from this episode on my iPod because I recently bought a boxed set of Star Trek soundtrack CDs as a birthday present for my friend, and fellow Trekker, Bill. Before I gave them to him, though, I burned one of the disks. (I did not burn them all because I am a nerd, not a crazy person. But now I kinda wish I had. I would like to have the fight music from “Amok Time.” I’m sure some of you know exactly what I mean.)

Yes, I am an official citizen of the United Federation of Planets. Give me a break! I was only 12. And that does appears to be a genuine Gene Roddenberry signature.

Yes, I am an official citizen of the United Federation of Planets. Give me a break! I was only 12. And that does appears to be a genuine Gene Roddenberry signature.

I am a Star Trek geek from way back. I was too young to appreciate the series during its initial run from 1966-69, although I do recall watching a bit of the episode called “A Private Little War.” I saw this weird white ape with spikes on its back and a horn on its head, and that was enough. It scared me at the time. Now it makes me cringe. Let’s just say “A Private Little War” is not Star Trek’s finest hour. Among other things, the episode includes horrible wigs and an orange mohair vest.

I really started watching, like so many others, when Star Trek became syndicated. I remember becoming transfixed when I tuned into “The Arena” during a family trip to Newport, Rhode Island. While my parents attended a cocktail party, I stayed in the hotel room to see how Captain Kirk could manage to defeat the big plastic lizard he was pitted against. (Spoiler alert: He makes gunpowder.)

My well-thumbed copy of The Making of Star Trek.

My well-thumbed copy of The Making of Star Trek.

I was hooked. I bought plastic Star Trek models. I ordered as much memorabilia as I could afford from an operation called Lincoln Enterprises. I joined the Star Trek fan club and received a certificate signed by series creator Gene Roddenberry. I wrote to Paramount on the Star Trek letterhead I had purchased and asked that the studio bring the series back. I bought all the paperback adaptations by James Blish. I tracked down a book called The Making of Star Trek by ordering it directly from the publisher, Ballantine Books. When I was bored in class, I occupied myself by drawing the Enterprise.

Years later I was working for Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, with offices right in the National Air and Space Museum. I could wander around the museum on my lunch hour and gaze at the actual Enterprise model filmed for the series. In 1992 the museum opened a big Star Trek exhibit. My wife and I got to attend the opening gala, a fancy affair attended by the original cast members. I managed to photograph them all, except for William Shatner. I enjoyed the exhibit, too, although I had to wonder why it was in the National Air and Space Museum. I loved the show and I really liked seeing all the props and costumes, but I thought it was a bit of a stretch putting it in NASM alongside the Apollo 11 capsule and spacesuits that had actually been on the moon. Yes, I know that Star Trek fans had successfully campaigned to get the first space shuttle prototype named Enterprise, and I’m aware that people have entered the aerospace field because Star Trek had inspired them. Truthfully, though, Star Trek was as much about space travel as Willy Wonka was about  the confectionary industry. I still think the National Museum of American History would have been a better venue.

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Leonard Nimoy at the National Air and Space Museum in 1992.

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Jack Valenti talks to DeForest Kelley, George Takei, and Nichelle Nichols at the National Air and Space Museum.

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Walter Koenig and James Doohan sign autographs.

I’ve maintained my interest in Trek over the years. I’ve watched the Star Trek movies as they came out. I enjoyed some of the spin-off series but lost interest in most of them. I liked the reboots. Occasionally I watch an episode of the original series on Netflix. Last night, my wife—who does not share my love of Star Trek—watched “The Naked Time” as a way to honor Nimoy. That’s the one in which the crew of the Enterprise gets infected with a virus that makes them act crazy. Spock gets overcome with his human emotions. Kirk confesses his love for his ship. Sulu goes fencing. It’s a pretty good episode, and it gave Nimoy a chance to stretch his acting chops a bit. He was no William Windom, though.


A “portrait” of the starship Enterprise I bought from Lincoln Enterprises. It cost me 50 cents.

I will admit that Spock was not my favorite Star Trek character. Nor was Kirk. Or McCoy. My favorite character was the starship Enterprise, the coolest spaceship ever. There’s something about the design that’s just perfect—the big saucer, the twin engines on their nacelles, the antenna on the front. I was saddened when Mr. Spock died at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But I was truly shocked when Kirk destroyed the Enterprise in the next movie, The Search for Spock. They eventually found Spock, but nothing could replace the original Enterprise.

Well, nothing will replace Leonard Nimoy, either. He lived long, he prospered, and, in his own pointed-eared way, he made the world just a little bit better.