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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?


wishing chairI can thank the band Translator for introducing me, indirectly, to 10,000 Maniacs. It was the summer of 1985 and I had just moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a magazine there. I was sitting at home in my basement apartment one weekend evening listening to the radio when WHFS played Translator’s “Everywhere That I’m Not.” I liked that song. I liked it a lot. Hearing it gave me an itch to go see some live music. I grabbed my copy of City Paper and saw that a band called 10,000 Maniacs was playing at the 9:30 Club. Probably a punky, high-energy ensemble, I thought, so I called up the art director from the magazine, one of the few people I knew in town, to see if he was interested in checking them out. He was.

The name notwithstanding, 10,000 Maniacs turned out to be not punky at all. The lead singer looked a hippie chick. She wore some kind of white muumuu thing, like Zippy the Pinhead’s but without the polka dots. She had hair down to her ass and often did this awkward whirling dervish spin when she wasn’t singing. She had a clear but throaty and very beautiful voice like nothing I had heard before. She was, of course Natalie Merchant. The band behind her was excellent, too, especially lead guitarist Robert Buck, who looked something like a portly English squire but, to quote Chuck Berry, played the guitar like ringing a bell. But the thing that really knocked us out was the lead singer. That voice had star quality written all over it.

Back at work on Monday I called Elektra Records to request a review copy of The Wishing Chair, the band’s major-label debut, which was just being released. The album was produced by Joe Boyd, who also did work with Richard Thompson (and recently wrote an excellent book about his life in music called White Bicycles. Check it out.) I don’t have The Wishing Chair in digital form so it’s not on my iPod, but I do have their next album, In My Tribe. The other day “The Painted Desert,” one of the songs from that album, popped up as I walked and it got me thinking about the band.

in my tribeIn My Tribe is a good album but you can sense the heavy hand of the record company at work. Boyd was gone, replaced by Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon fame). Gone, too, were most of the folky influences of The Wishing Chair. In My Tribe sounds cleaned up, buffed down, and polished. By the time the album came out Merchant had a completely new image, too. Instead of a muumuu she was wearing what looked like business clothes and pearls. Her hair was bobbed. Singer and band had obviously been worked over by the star-making machinery behind the popular song. Still, In My Tribe had a bunch of great songs, including “Hey Jack Kerouac,” “Like the Weather,” and “Don’t Talk” (the latter featuring some great chiming guitar by Buck).

There was also “What’s the Matter Here?” which led to a snarky review in Rolling Stone that still makes me snicker. The reviewer said, and I quote from memory, “In ‘What’s the Matter Here?’ the Maniacs take a stand on child abuse. They’re against it.” Indeed, Merchant could display an irritating knack for self-righteousness. I recall another writer remarking how all the injustice in the world made Merchant mad enough to stamp her slippered feet. There was also a story making the rounds—and I can’t vouch for its veracity—that the Maniacs once did a show at an aquarium to support animal rights, but the volume from their speakers killed fish in the tanks.

As a Steely Dan fan I’m hardly someone who can complain about studio polish. Still, as much as I like In My Tribe, it was missing something. I think I bought the next album, Blind Man’s Zoo, but I never got My Time in Eden until I recently found it in the library. Merchant left the band after that album. I never really followed her solo career. As much as I like her voice, I like it a lot more with Robert Buck’s guitar behind it. I didn’t hear much from 10,000 Maniacs after Merchant left, except for a nice cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” recorded with a new vocalist. Sadly, Robert Buck died not too long ago of liver failure.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard much about Translator, either. But on those rare occasions when “Everywhere That I’m Not” comes over the radio it still makes me want to hear some live music. And it still makes me think of 10,000 Maniacs.

(May 8, 2013)

Lately I’ve been enjoying some musical variety by heading out on my walks with my wife’s MP3 player instead of my iPod. It was a birthday present I got her this year and I loaded it up with the songs I knew she’d like. There’s tons of stuff from the ’70s plus a smattering of more recent offerings, such as fun. And there’s some material from in-between.

One of those in-between songs really got the memory banks flowing this morning. It was “Boy’s Gone Crazy” by the band called Was (Not Was), from the incredible 1988 album What Up, Dog? If people remember that album it’s probably because of the freak dance-floor hit “Walk the Dinosaur.” But What Up, Dog? is so much more than that; it’s a collection of twisted funk from two white guys from Detroit who called themselves Don and David Was, and a crackerjack band of great musicians.

I first heard of Was (Not Was) when I was working on my little music magazine in Boston. It must have been in 1984 or 1985 when the magazine received a promo copy of an album with the curious title Born to Laugh at Tornadoes by a band with an even more curious name, Was (Not Was). The album turned out to be an odd but listenable collection indeed, with tons of strange guest stars. Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder contributed the vocals to a ditty called “Bow Wow Wow Wow,” Doug Fieger, late of the dirty-minded pop band the Knack, sang on a couple songs. Ozzie Osbourne contributed some off-kilter rapping and Mel Tormé sang a very strange little ditty called “Zaz Turned Blue” (“Zaz turned blue. What were we supposed to do?”). Then there was “Man vs. the Empire Brain Building,” which has become a touchstone of my personal philosophy. It goes like this:

In this life there are just three things:
Man vs. man
Man vs. woman
And man vs. the Empire Brain Building.

How can you argue with that?

Born to Laugh at Tornadoes became a personal favorite of mine back then, but it didn’t prepare me for the wonderfulness that was What Up, Dog? I first came across it when I was on a trip to London. Apparently the British appreciate Was (Not Was) more than us Americans do, because London record stores had big displays of the album in their shop windows. I studied the jacket to see if this was, indeed, the same band that did Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. Apparently it was but I had to wait until I returned to the States to buy up a copy—on vinyl. It was indeed the same band, yet . . . it was different. It was less rocky, more soulful. It had fewer synthesizers.  It opened with a wistful ballad called “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad,” but then it launched into funkier territory with “Spy in the House of Love” and “Out Come the Freaks” (a different version of which was on the previous album). There were gruff and soulful vocals by Sweet Pea Atkinson (who was supposedly discovered while working on a Detroit assembly line) and smoother stuff by Sir Harry Bowens (the apparent knighthood provides another indication of how much the British loved the band). There was a song about the JFK assassination, the aforementioned “Walk the Dinosaur,” and some strange stuff like “Earth to Doris” (My favorite line: “She makes champagne out of Seven-up and cheap wine—a chemist!”). Then there was the crème de la crème of strangeness, with a discordant band backing up David Was in a “song” called “Dad, I’m in Jail.”

It was a great album. And the CD, which I eventually purchased, was even greater because it included even more songs, among them “Wedding Vows in Vegas,” with vocals by Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Here’s “Spy in the House of Love”:

So when I heard that Was (Not Was) was coming to the old 9:30 Club in Washington in 1988 I hurried out to get tickets ($8.00 each). As I recall, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I had hosted a small soiree the night before and on Saturday she was suffering from what we referred to back then as a “sick-headache.” So I headed downtown to the club by myself. It turned out to be one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen. The club was practically deserted, which may have been just as well because the band was so big they had to set up some of their equipment on the floor next to the stage. They had a horn section and the trumpet player played two instruments at once—one from each corner of his mouth. I remember they did a killer cover of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which later appeared on their 1990 album, Are You Okay?

When I got home I put the unused ticket into a scrapbook, just in case someone invented time travel and gave me the opportunity to go back to 1988 and use it.

Flash forward a long time—a span that included marriage, two kids, a move to Pennsylvania, a new job, lost job, new new job. Suddenly it’s 2008 and Was (Not Was) has just released a new album—Boo!—after almost 20 years. It was a good album, too. Even better, the band was touring and was scheduled to play an all-ages show on a Sunday afternoon at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis. That was a reasonably easy drive and, my wife and I realized with the excitement of parents who want to leave their children with precious memories, we could bring the kids. They’ll love it!

Well, we were wrong about that.

As parents we liked to expose our children to new experiences and thereby expand their growing minds. We watched classic movies with them—until they started complaining if they had to watch anything in black and white. We dragged them to historical sites despite their vociferous protests. (“Henry Ford was right, Dad!” they would protest from the back seat. “History is bunk!”) We introduced them to new foods so they could declare they didn’t like them. And we took them to see Was (Not Was).

Before we left the house for the road trip to Annapolis I carefully removed the unused ticket from 20 years earlier and slipped it into my pocket. Just in case.

It was a beautiful day for a drive but the kids sat in the back seat and glowered. Despite a traffic backup on I-95 we reached the Ram’s Head in plenty of time. I spied the band’s tour bus parked in front of the club. We decided to eat lunch at a table on the sidewalk. As we ate I looked up and saw David Was (born David Weiss) walking down the sidewalk. I jumped up and approached him, my 1988 ticket in hand. He looked at it with amusement. “Was I there?” he asked. “I don’t think I’m old enough.”

I assured him he had been there and I brought him over to our table to introduce him to the family. “The kids like ‘Dad, I’m in Jail,’” I told him. Which was true enough, I think. “We don’t do that one anymore,” Was said. “That was all pretty much made up in the studio. I saw the red light go on and I just started say, ‘Dad, I’m in jail.’” I had him sign the ticket. “Thanks so much for coming,” he said. “Come up after the show and say hello.” Then he left.

My wife and I were ecstatic. The kids, less so. Then I spotted Don Was (a.k.a. Donald Fagenson) stepping out of the tour bus. With his shades, white-man dreadlocks and cowboy hat, he looked more like a star than his musical partner. Maybe because he was. Don Was had made a name for himself as a producer, working with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and a host of others. (Just  recently he became president of Blue Note Records.) But he, too, was perfectly affable and friendly when I approached him with my ticket and he happily signed it.

Then it was show time. The Ram’s Head is a pretty small club and we got a great spot in a booth facing the stage. The show was terrific—a great mix of songs, a tight band, high energy—and I figured the kids must be finally seeing the light. But when I glanced over I saw that they were both glowering in the booth, their jiggling legs rapping out a Morse code that obviously read, “Can we go now?”

And then David Was approached the mike. “We’d like to do this for the youngest member of the audience,” he announced. And then he said, “Dad . . . I’m in jail. Hello, Dad. I’m in jail,” as the band riffed behind him.

Wow! Was (Not Was) had just dedicated “Dad, I’m in Jail” to my son. He had to be pretty psyched by that!


Well, my wife and I loved the show and we were walking on air when it was over. Our children’s stormy visages, however, clearly indicated that they did not want to go up and say hello to the band. Instead we left the club to explore Annapolis on a beautiful spring day—until the insistent, repeated queries of “Can we go now?” finally convinced us it was time to head home.

Yes, youth is indeed wasted on the young. I do hope, though, that someday, when Was (Not Was) is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, my children will recall the glorious day when their parents dragged them, against their will, to get a taste of musical greatness, and they will finally realize how lucky they were.

But I won’t hold my breath. I might turn blue, like Zaz.

It was a little tough forcing myself out for a walk this morning. The day was foggy and gray and the neighborhood looked like the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees. We received a little snow over the weekend but it was getting soggy and old, like something left too long in the fridge. Yesterday a DJ on WXPN mentioned a study that had determined January 24 was the most depressing day of the year. It made sense.

But I’m glad I forced myself outside. The tag-team combination of the music and the exercise helped lift my spirits. First I got a one-two punch of 1970s TV when the iPod played the themes from “The Odd Couple” and “The Rockford Files” back to back. Two great songs from iconic TV shows, both of which were on Friday nights, I think. I had even purchased the 45 of the Rockford theme way back when, at the Melody Shop in downtown Augusta, Maine. A few months ago I even went online to find out who plays the guitar solo on that. The consensus is that composer Mike Post played it himself, although some people theorized it was Les Dudek. It’s that good.

Sometimes the iPod has an almost uncanny way of picking the right song. After the exercise in TV nostalgia it played “Barely Breathing” by the Reivers. That was a strange coincidence because just yesterday I had been thinking about the CD it’s from, Pop Beloved, after reading an article in the Washington Post about the record store where I had bought it.

The store was Melody Records on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, just north of Dupont Circle. The article said the store was going out of business. Truth be told, I was surprised to hear it hadn’t closed years ago. Running a record store these days is about as smart as operating a dinosaur ranch. It’s only the dinosaurs like me who still buy CDs, and I don’t buy very many. Once we purchased objects that contained the music; now the music comes unencumbered by a physical body. It’s just bits and bytes that flow through the ether and into your storage device. Tunes today are like those beings from old “Star Trek” episodes that evolved until they were just balls of energy (which must make it very hard for them to adjust their earbuds).

There was a time, though, when Melody Records was just one of many record stores I would visit on my walks through Washington. If I decided to make the big hike home from my office near L’Enfant Plaza I could hit the Olsson’s near Metro Center, continue on to check out the new-arrivals bin at the Olsson’s near Dupont Circle, peruse the cutouts at the nearby Kemp Mill Records on Connecticut Avenue, then cross the street to peek into Melody Records. I think I bought only two things there—one record and one CD—but they were good purchases. The record was Happy All Time by the Primitons and the CD was Pop Beloved.

Local station WHFS turned me on to the Reivers when I moved to DC in 1986. Back then the band called themselves Zeitgeist until another group by that name threatened to sue them. HFS was playing the band’s cover of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” the song originally made famous by Willie Nelson. I liked it enough to buy the album—at Tower Records, I think. I saw them live every time they passed through DC, always at the smelly old 9:30 Club on F Street, around the corner from Ford’s Theater. Every show was excellent. On one memorable occasion their encore was Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” and that was me jumping up and down in front of the stage in the nearly empty club, screaming, “Thin Lizzy! Thin Lizzy!” Ah, good times. The hangover the next day? Not so good.

They were a great band, a pop-oriented quartet from Austin, Texas, fronted by the sweet-and-sour vocal combination of Kim Longacre and John Croslin. Longacre had a powerful, pure voice and Croslin sang gruffly like Lou Reed but their voices worked together beautifully, like a good marriage. A lot of their songs were about family and relationships and just trying to make things work out, so sometimes it felt like a musical marriage. And although I was listening to the Reivers today on a cold and damp January morning, they are really a summer band, best heard on a steamy, humid afternoon with a canopy of green leaves above your head and a cold beer in your hand.

The followed up their debut with Saturday, a Don Dixon-produced album (which I only recently got on CD). Next came what might be their best album, End of the Day, which includes “Star Telegram,” one of my favorite Reivers songs , a nostalgia-drenched look at a past that is gone forever. With its imagery of fans, backyard barbecues and cold soda it also reinforces my feeling that the Reivers are meant to be heard in the heat of a languid summer afternoon. The fact that they do a rocking cover of the showtune “Lazy Afternoon” on that album only reinforces that opinion.

I bought End of the Day at the big Tower Records near George Washington University, which has also gone out of business. The Olsson’s chain is gone, too. I just went online to check and gasped with surprise and sorrow to find a placeholder page that said, “Olsson’s is closed.” While I can’t feel as much sorrow over the end of Kemp Mill, which was the least personal of them all, I did buy a fair amount of product at their stores. I especially loved their cutouts (which is how I got Dumptruck’s Positively Dumptruck and the first, Nick Lowe-produced Katydid’s album, among many other purchases).

That’s another thing about records and CDs— each one can act as trigger for a specific memory. I can still remember my feeling of excitement when I looked into the new arrival bin and found Pop Beloved. In those pre-Internet days I had no idea it was out, or even being recorded. You don’t get that kind of captured moment when you download a song. It’s like the difference between getting a letter and receiving an email, buying a book or downloading one. I’m not saying that to rail against technology, but something has been lost.

The other day the iPod played “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll” by Prefab Sprout. The song, off the 1988 album From Langley Park to Memphis, reminds me of my friend Harold, even though I don’t think he particularly liked Prefab Sprout. But I bought the album one Saturday at a Kemp Mill Records store in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, near Harold’s apartment at the time, so I dropped in on him to listen to it.

As I remember, it was a beautiful day in the late afternoon, sometime in the spring or summer, with the lowering sun bringing out the warm pastels in everything it touched. Adams Morgan was bustling, as it always was, with its mix of DC Yuppies and Hispanic immigrants. To me it always felt more like Los Angeles than Washington. Harold lived in an older building a few blocks up Columbia Road from 18th Street. It had a lobby area that might have been nice once, but all the furniture and carpets were long gone, so it had the forlorn feeling of an abandoned ballroom. The hallways upstairs were bare wood—at least that’s how I remember them—and every apartment had an outer door made of louvered wood. I assume in the days before air conditioning tenants would open their inner doors and their windows so they could get a breeze through the louvered doors without losing their privacy.

Harold’s apartment was small, but comfortable, and filled with his bric-a-brac—his albums, his presidential history books and memorabilia, a stuffed Muttley from The Wacky Races cartoon. He had a refrigerator magnet that always made me laugh. It said, “Jesus is coming. Hide your bong.” I have no doubt that we drank some beer as we listened to the album. WHFS had been playing “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll” and “Cars and Girls” and I liked both songs a lot. As I said, I don’t think From Langley Park to Memphis impressed Harold very much, but I don’t recall arguing about the album’s merits. And if you knew Harold, you’ll understand how surprising that is. Harold liked to argue.

I met him back when I was living in Boston. I was editing a little music magazine and he covered country and bluegrass for me. Every so often I would arrange to meet him in front of the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square. I’d hand him a few promo albums and he’d give me anything he had written. He interviewed Ricky Skaggs for the magazine and he wrote something about David Bromberg. Later I found out that he was going down to Washington to get his Master’s at American University. I told him I was moving down there myself to start a new job and that I’d drop him a line once I got established.

Harold moved down shortly after I did and he found a place in Northern Virginia, just beyond the end of the Yellow Line. His roommate, a girl he had known in Boston, was a competitive Frisbee player. I went out to visit one day in the fall, taking the Metro all the way to the end and then walking the mile or so to his apartment complex. Harold had a case of stout waiting and we drank the beer as we sat around, listened to albums and talked. This must have been the first time I had really hung out with him and it started a friendship that lasted for almost 25 years. We might have finished the case by the time I staggered out into the night, just in time, I thought, to catch the last train back to town. Except I reached the platform as the last train pull out of the station. So I walked all the way back through the hot Virginia night to Harold’s and crashed on the couch.

A  fairly big, solid guy, Harold looked Germanic, which you could expect from someone whose last name was Schlicht. I used to joke that his name suffered from a vowel shortage. He was blond with glasses and he usually had a mustache and sometimes a scraggly beard. When he talked his hands and arms took on a life of their own. He would lean forward a little, his hands and arms swinging back and forth for emphasis, and he had a kind of stutter-start way of talking. He did like to talk. He especially liked to argue. It didn’t take much to get him going and in all the time I knew him I can’t recall a single instance when he admitted to being bested, whether the topic was whether or not the country was in a recession or the reasons why Lincoln should have let the Southern states secede. Sometimes he could get a little testy, lowering  his head a little, his voice getting a bit edgier, his sentences more bluntly declarative, his hands chopping to underscore his points, but I also can’t recall him ever getting personal. He would never budge from his position, but he never nursed grievances, either. He proudly called himself a libertarian, but that didn’t stop him from sometimes arguing for more regulation of things he didn’t like. Once or twice I tried to point out this discrepancy, but he brushed it off.

Harold was a music lover with a large and eclectic album collection. He resisted the introduction of CDs even more vociferously than I did, though he eventually succumbed. He resisted other things, too. Last summer I suggested that I come down to DC so we could see the Red Sox play the Washington Nationals. “I will never go to a Nationals game,” he declared. “Washington does not deserve to have a baseball team.” He had that kind of stubborn integrity about things.

Happy hour always provided a good time to argue. Bunches of us would meet at one happy hour or another to take advantage of cheap beer and free food. For a time we went to a place called the Brickyard. Later we found out that Chicago’s on Dupont Circle put out an entire roast turkey for their happy hour. Harold turned us on to the Dungeon, the downstairs bar at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House on the corner of Connecticut and Florida Avenues. At happy hour the Dungeon had steam trays full of delicious Ruth’s Chris steak tips. Harold was a beer enthusiast, so another regular hangout was the Brickskeller, also near DuPont, which had a huge beer menu. The Fox and Hounds had a decent beer selection but it also had the best juke box in Washington. Sometimes went to the Crow Bar, or a martini bar called Olivio’s, or the Tiber Creek Pub near Union Station, which served beer by the yard and the half yard. Looking back, it seems like those years were just a blur of happy hours.

The best hangout, though, was Mr. Eagan’s, a classic dive on Connecticut just below Dupont Circle. It was a long, narrow, dim place. When you pushed through the door the first thing you saw was a large pastry case, although I can’t imagine anyone buying cakes or pastries at Eagan’s. As you walked toward the back you moved down the length of the bar, with a single line of booths against the wall on your right. The place opened up a little in the back, which had a few tables crowded over near a greasy popcorn machine. It was the kind of establishment that would make a visiting health inspector rub his hands together with glee. The somewhat frightening bathrooms were past the popcorn and up the stairs in the back. There was a condom dispenser up there too. Someone had written on it with marker, “Don’t buy this gum. It tastes bad and it is hard to chew.”

Eagan’s later added a downstairs bar, which had a place to play darts. I had my bachelor party at Eagan’s downstairs. At one point during the festivities I decided to see if I could bite through the brim of Harold’s leather Stetson. I couldn’t, but I did leave a nice tooth pattern.

We spent many hours at Eagan’s, crowded into a table or booth with a bunch of people, drinking beer, laughing, talking about music and movies, eating the greasy pub food and sometimes arguing. I met my wife-to-be there on a blind date on the night before Thanksgiving one year. (Thank you, Mr. Eagan’s!) One night Harold and I got particularly well-oiled at Eagan’s. On the way out we sat down at one of the booths, uninvited, to play paper football with the couple seated there. It was their first date. I like to think they got married and still talk about those two drunks who crashed their date at Eagan’s. Eventually we extricated ourselves to begin the long walk up Connecticut Avenue to crash at my apartment. Harold and I later claimed that we crawled across the Taft Bridge. We might have, too. I also think Harold threw up in my kitchen sink once we got to my place.

There were parties, too. We had occasional poker nights, which were always a lot of fun. Harold did a lot of house sitting for the lawyers at his firm (he was the law librarian), so he would often have a bunch of us over when he did. One house in particular, a very moderne place just over the Chain Bridge in Arlington, had a nice swimming pool out back and was a great place for afternoon swimming and barbecue parties. Sometimes we went golfing. That was great because golfing with Harold almost made my brand of hackery look good in comparison.  But we always had fun. I particularly remember one time when Harold, a mutual friend and I played an early round at Rock Creek Golf Course and then headed back to my apartment to make a late breakfast of bacon, eggs and coffee.

I heard a lot of live music with Harold, too. One time we caught a double bill of Little Charlie and the Nightcats and Duke Robillard at a place on Connecticut Avenue. Its name escapes me, but I remember they played Spinal Tap songs between bands. We saw David Bromberg and his big band at the Bayou in Georgetown. Harold and I were both Bromberg fans, but the opening act was so irritating that we skipped the second show rather than sit through them again. It became a running joke.

We saw the Reivers at the old 9:30 Club, the wonderful old place on F Street that had a unique smell, a mixture of industrial-strength solvents, sweat and beer that would seep into your clothing and hair. We saw Dumptruck a few times at the 9:30, too, once when River Phoenix’s band was the opening act. Not to speak ill of the dead, but we thought they were horrible. I figured the people cheering and calling for an encore were being sarcastic, but the place emptied once Phoenix’s group finished, leaving just a handful of people to see Dumptruck, a truly great band at the height of its powers. That might have been the night that Tommy Keene jumped on stage for an extended encore that included Richard Thompson’s “Streets of Paradise” and a rousing “Route 66.”

Once I talked Harold into going to see Lyle Lovett at Wolf Trap. I could tell he was reluctant. I told him Lovett played a lot of different genres—country, bluegrass, western swing—just as Bromberg did. Lovett was touring behind Joshua Judges Ruth, an excellent album, and his band even included Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson from Was (Not Was). It was a great show. I ran into Harold as he walked up the aisle after it was over. “What did you think?” I asked. He looked grumpy. “Too much variety,” he said. “He should stick to one genre.” I got the impression he showed up determined not to like the show. I felt like strangling him.

That was Harold. But you couldn’t stay mad at him. He was a genuinely big-hearted guy and someone who truly valued his friends. There was no malice in him, just a lot of entrenched opinions. He was the kind of guy you called when you needed someone to help you move—and I did. That’s a true sign of friendship.

I didn’t see Harold all that much once I moved to Pennsylvania, but we stayed in touch. I crashed at his place when I visited DC on business and we’d go out someplace for beer. He came up for most of the Frank Sinatra parties my wife and I threw each year. It was always good to see him.

Harold loved beer. A true connoisseur, he made his own excellent brews, giving them funny names and printing his own labels. My favorite name was the Nat King Cole Porter. Once I took an out-of-town friend to Mr. Eagan’s and for some reason we were feeling under the weather the next morning, so we went over to Harold’s place—he was living in a high-rise in Arlington at that point—and he served us some incredible stout he had made. It fixed us right up. For last year’s Frank party Harold brought a beer that he said was part of a planned Dictator Series. This one was the Dick Cheney Undisclosed Ale. Harold claimed the recipe included a little gunpowder. For the label he photoshopped Cheney’s face onto a shotgun-toting Elmer Fudd. In keeping with his libertarian principles, Harold said he was going to name the next beer in the series after Nancy Pelosi. He also mentioned that one of the lawyers at the firm where he worked was talking about backing him in a DC brewpub.

Harold had been through a rough patch, but by last spring he was emerging from it. He had met a woman with whom he was obviously very happy and the two of them came over to my house the morning after the party. We got take-out burritos and my wife and I just sat around with them, drank some beer, and listened to music and talked about old times. In fact, it felt a lot like old times.

Harold died three months later, of a sudden heart attack while he was working out at the gym. I still can’t quite believe that my friend of so many years—the man who loved beer, his girlfriend, Green Acres, John Wayne movies, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Beautiful South, his job, the Mets, cooking and arguing with his friends—has left us forever. Six months later I still turn that thought around in my head a lot. It feels strange, like discovering that a tooth is missing. I wish he were still around. I wish he could read this and argue with me about everything I got wrong. I wish he could tell me about the latest beer he had discovered, or offer me a bottle of his Nancy Pelosi ale. He was my friend and I miss him.


July 2018
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