Sunday, January 11, 2009

A few notes on Dot's piano

In the vast span of the forty-three years which have defined my life to this moment, there are amazing instances of what I like to think of as 'overlap'. I find it utterly fascinating to consider the stunning array of physical items we pick up, unlock, tie, wrap, drink from, strum, stir, hammer, shuffle, wash, dry, throw, untangle, iron, repair, fold, spindle, and mutilate in the course of a lifetime. It's intriguing to me that there may be a plastic fork in a landfill somewhere that I used to eat coleslaw in 1978, completely shrouded from the eyes of man, buried in the absolute obscurity of obsolescence. For a few brief moments when I was 13, it was incredibly useful to me, it was my fork, and it was the perfect tool to address my immediate need. Then it went into the trash can and I went back to watching the original Battlestar Galactica (during its initial run), struggling with my algebra homework, totally relegating this only recently useful item to complete forgetfulness. But, somewhere amid the coleslaw forks and shoelaces and oscillating floor fans, there are inevitably the truly important items, those whose purpose in our lives is measured by the deeper significance of what they touched in us, rather than the mundane definition of their intended purpose.

There was a strange and difficult season of my life not too many years in the past when I found myself displaced and suddenly trying to cram the myriad bits and pieces that comprised the mesh of my existence into cardboard cartons and Rubbermaid tubs. "From here on out, I want to travel light," I demonstratively told my brother. The plan seemed drenched in Spartan practicality--don't drag anything along that didn't stir instant emotional connection, and anything I was undecided on could be moved into my parents' basement (which looked remarkably like the closing warehouse scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark). The concept held true for a short span of time, but was ultimately shot to pieces in the reality that I am incurably sentimental, unashamedly enamored of those elements of the past which have come to encapsulate the best awareness of life, reflections of moments when everything seemed right and there was nothing negative to distract or dilute the pristine pleasure of the moment. And so, as my hitherto iron resolve gradually disintegrated amid the happiness I was finding as a husband and step dad, I slammed the volitional brakes on, spun the wheel of my focus back to every inanimate object which had ever blessed my younger years, and soon began to pull every morsel of nostalgic essence back onto my plate.

It was in the midst of this season of sentimental accumulation that I wound up with my Aunt Dot's piano prominently displayed in the living room. The very sound of that description seems always overwhelmingly insipid - your aunt's piano - but it stands against the wall that abuts our garage like a defiant sentinel forbidding the past to run away. That it is so large and cumbersome, and that so much sweat and strain were utilized bringing it here, somehow makes it more invaluable than I could have ever imagined. Moving it or removing it are not easy options, and its own leaden steadfastness reminds me each day of what an important marker it is in my life. Proverbs 22:28 says, 'Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers'. That seems incredibly appropriate in regard to this massive musical instrument. It has come to serve as a delineating factor which speaks of the past, both my short one and the much longer ones of all those others associated with it, not the least of whom is my Aunt Dot.

Dot was one of the great, constant factors of my life, in her own right as immobile in my memory as that gargantuan set of 88 keys. She was my mom's sister, and the two of them were lifelong best friends as well as incredibly close siblings. No matter how many years passed, they remained two giddy schoolgirls at heart, lovingly described by Dot's husband, my Uncle Jack, as the Famous Chaney Sisters. Long before either had married, the Chaney girls had formed their lifelong bond in their tiny hometown in the throes of the Great Depression. Dot was the elder, and she left home at an early age to marry the dashing Jack, a recent Bible school graduate and circuit evangelist who had meandered east from Iowa and caught the eye of the young girl. I've seen pictures of him from that era, and it was obvious he modeled much of his physical charm after Clark Gable, right down to the distinctly-trimmed mustache. In an exceptionally short span of time, they married and departed on a whirlwind journey, crisscrossing the country, preaching the gospel, and touching lives at every turn. As the years passed, three sons filled their home with rambunctious activity, and it became a truly challenging chore to keep up with the Jones's. As Jack preached, Dot was always at his side, playing piano and organ, accompanying him as he strummed acoustic guitar. Their life was the gospel, and music, and the two elements overlapped inextricably, exactly as it should be.

By the time I came on the scene in the mid '60's, they had settled at a small church in Joppa, Maryland, just a stone's throw from the outskirts of Baltimore. Their sons were grown by this time, creating the odd situation whereby my first cousins were practically old enough to be my father. With just Dot and Jack living in the parsonage, visiting them was a wonderful experience, especially to a four-year-old. For some reason, I remember being there at about that age, reading a Jerry Lewis comic book in which he was delivering pastrami sandwiches and wound up on a rocket by mistake, and I remember looking at a full page ad on the inside of the back cover which showed famous movie monster kits by Aurora. But I mainly remember just being in the house itself. There were many wonderful aspects to that house, so different from my parents' one story bungalow in the suburbs, in the western part of the state. Dot and Jack's house enthralled me by the mere fact that it was two stories. One of the earliest memories I have is of standing at the top of the stairwell, which was surrounded with a balcony, dropping plastic figures of David and the soldiers of ancient Israel down the steep slope to crush some unseen foe. But for all the fun I found upstairs, the room which hopelessly captured my interest was the living room, not so much due to the room itself, but due to the one amazing element it contained which I had never laid eyes or fingers on before--the piano.

It sat against the wall, silently powerful. I vaguely remember sheet music piled on it--Dot always seemed to have mountains of hymnals and individual songs. In the direct center of the piano, behind the music stand, there sat a small, decorative clock which was made to look like a fireplace. In the opening of the hearth were miniature plastic logs, and an ingenious mechanism which rotated a colored cellophane disc to simulate the roaring blaze. High above the piano, on the wall behind, hung a neon-bright painting by a friend of my aunt and uncle's named Jim Reeser. It depicted a sharp, clean view of a lazy meadow with a millpond and stone-encased housing for a spinning waterwheel. To sit there and stare up was somehow amazing, transporting. Making the entire scene all the more magical and heartwarming was the presence of their beloved collie dog, Brownie, who would curl up on the floor and rest his ancient chin on stiffened paws. I would sit there for hours, doing the kind of loud, dumb things annoying four-year-olds do on pianos, but none of the adults ever criticized or shooed me away. There was too much talking, too much laughing, too much love in that house for anyone to ever make me feel that I needed to do anything more than dabble happily. I remember my brother teaching me to play 'Chopsticks', my first real flirt with music a full five years before I would first pick up a guitar and begin a lifelong love affair with that instrument.

Many years passed, and Dot and Jack wound up at a church in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suburb of Camp Hill. Life had changed infinitely--my brother was in college in Virginia, I was now a teenager, and Brownie was long gone. But Jack was still preaching, and still playing guitar, and I remember him singing in his distinctive voice, 'I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God'. Dot was still playing piano, and so it went, and I would occasionally tinker on the keys when we visited them, but I was now a guitar man, and the wonderful old instrument of my childhood seemed to have faded somewhat. As I drifted deeper into the selfishness of teenage angst, I thought less of those faded days, and gradually seemed to be drifting away even from myself. And then my Uncle Jack died. With stunning suddenness, the world changed forever, and the years I had almost disdainfully plastic-wrapped somewhere in the back of my mind became a cloudy vapor I clutched at desperately, hoping to find substance that appeared to have vanished. Hardly missing a beat, Dot plunged deep into the waters of ministering to others, in this case, to widows like herself, and ended up forging a powerful outreach to widows and widowers which she flourished in for more than 14 years.

Then, in the awful aftermath of 9/11, Dot suffered a stroke. The woman who had been the go-getter, the preacher of the gospel, the piano player and comforter of the sorrowful, was stricken flat on her back. The endless energy seemed to have drained out of her like melting snow, and when I visited her in the nursing home, I saw a tired and depleted shadow of the woman who had been a loving and caring fixture of my childhood, my mother's best friend, a light of hope and happiness to hundreds of people. The old twinkle was still there in her exhausted eyes, and she could still laugh with the same playful mirth, forcing itself out through lips rendered stiff through illness. Shortly before my wife and I married, I took her to meet Dot, and felt a sadness that she couldn't experience my aunt as the joyous woman I had known all my life, but I saw the gleam in Dot's eyes and knew she approved, and that made my new-found love all the more special.

Dot left us to walk into the Lord's presence on a cold day in November of 2005. We went to the funeral in a penetrating, stinging rain, and stood at her graveside, between where my uncle Jack and my grandparents lay, and my mother clutched my father's arm, and I looked in her eyes and knew that her best friend was gone. We went home, and life went on, and there was a gigantic void. Her house sat empty, vacant, damp rooms stuffed with thousands of pictures from trips her and Jack had taken to the Holy Land, the piles of sheet music, Jim Reeser's painting on the wall, and the beloved piano, mute and grim, somehow empty without her touch on its keys. As her sons began the painful scrutiny of deciding who to give what to, I uncharacteristically jumped in and told them I would be honored if I could have two items--the piano, and Reeser's mill scene. No one else in the family really played piano, and I knew that I couldn't bear to see it sold or packed away.

My long-suffering best friend, Mike, rode beside me in a rented Penske truck on a Friday in April of 2006 as we followed my parents to Camp Hill. We entered Dot and Jack's house for the final time, reverential, like opening some ancient tomb, and the memories that flooded over me as we swung open the front door were powerful enough to eclipse even the palpable must. We loaded the piano on a dolly, struggled and fought it onto the truck, and drove to my house. Under my father's direction, we navigated it through my cluttered garage and stumbled up the step into my living room. It was like moving a Volkswagen. And so it was transported to its resting place, where it resides now, and for the first time in years, I sat down and struck the keys. All my life it had been slightly out of tune, and years in an unheated house hadn't helped. Everything I played reminded me of the silent movie-esque piano from The Beatles' Rocky Raccoon. The soundboard is probably shot, so it may never be able to survive an attempt at tuning, but I don't really mind. I have sat for hours and played mildly sour renditions of my favorite piano songs -- Allentown, Martha My Dear, Scott Joplin rags, bits of Tori Amos stuff-- much in the droning, sustain-drenched inflection of George Winston. The sound is new, and immensely old, and almost too powerful for words.

Sometimes I sit at the piano when I'm alone in the house and let my fingers drift aimlessly across the keys, like I did in 1969. One of my cats, Jack, inexplicably finds it soothing and mesmerizing, and he crawls under the bench, just inches from my feet. I hear the slightly discordant clusters of notes, not unlike the ones I pounded out in Joppa a lifetime ago, and suddenly Jack is Brownie the dog, quietly, faithfully listening to each note, peaceful and snug, just like me. Until the day that I'm actually able to hang Jim Reeser's millpond scene on the wall above, all I need to do is close my eyes as I play, and my mind focuses easily on the winding stream, and the russet reeds, and the stark, clean stone walls of the mill set against the blaze of autumnal maples and wispy evergreens. I can almost hear the gentle lullaby of the motor in the long-vanished fireplace clock spinning, and the Aurora monster kits and Jerry Lewis flying to the moon with pastrami sandwiches flit through my brain. I imagine that I hear Uncle Jack laughing in the background, shooting the breeze with my dad about boxing or the book of Exodus, and the famous Chaney sisters are giggling in the kitchen while my brother reads a book on the sofa. Then I open my eyes and find that they're all gone, and a drowsy cat is looking up at me with questioning eyes, and my own eyes are moist as I run them across the yellowed ivory, listening intently as the last, flat notes drift somewhere forever........

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Productive sessions?

Forty years ago this week, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr ambled into the drafty, cavernous Twickenham film studios in London, England. After a two-month hiatus following the completion of the sessions for the White Album, the group was re-assembling to commence work on a project destined to polarize fans into two distinctly passionate groups--the enthralled and the totally bored. The Beatles were uncharacteristically working a morning-to-evening shift, eschewing the middle of the night session schedule which had dominated their operating procedure since they had begun work on Sgt. Pepper more than two years before. The intended plan was for the sessions to be filmed as a documentary, outlining the gradual evolution of their new compositions from embryonic acorns to the full-blown mighty oaks they had proven themselves capable of in their past recording efforts.
As the rehearsals progressed, the group planned to work toward the final culmination: a live television concert, their first public performance since they had played Candlestick Park in San Francisco at the end of August, 1966. They had entered the last year of the '60's with a renewed optimism and fresh enthusiasm to do something new, but as the month of January rolled by (along with miles of film through the motion picture cameras), the wide eyes were beginning to squint beneath furrowed brows as the tensions within the group started to work against their hopeful intent. The television concert began to wane, and now the discussions were turning toward the prospect of an exotic locale. McCartney expressed the theory that the QE2 ocean liner would be a perfect venue, an idea which Harrison summarily dismissed as insane. Lennon was frustrated that the newness of the project had somehow morphed into a redressing of the old Beatles routine--locked in a studio again--and ruminated about the concept of working somewhere out of the norm - Los Angeles and France were suggested -- just for the sake of fresh surroundings. Starr was a generally complacent participant in the proceedings, active but not pro-active, but was adamant about not traveling for the sake of the project.

Time and tempers quickly grew short. By late January, George Harrison had left the group after a heated exchange with Paul McCartney. He quickly returned to the fold, but an undercurrent of tension continued to run through the remainder of the sessions. As the month drew to a close, so did any long-range plans of live performance. Exhausted and disheartened, the group rounded out the project with a final, exciting flourish. McCartney had suggested that, in lieu of the nebulous concert, the band should perform in an unusual venue, with the specific purpose of being forcibly ejected, ushered out by the police as the cameras rolled, a suitable non sequitur to close out a frustrating chapter of the Beatles' most recent endeavors. With an unexpected show of group unity, the other three agreed, and the Beatles performed for the last time ever in public on a freezing Thursday afternoon on the rooftop of Apple studios, with the surrounding business district drawn into the streets as the strains of Don't Let Me Down drifted through the frigid London air. As secretaries and bemused passersby strained for a look, the group watched the arrival of bobbies, exactly as McCartney had theorized, and managed one final performance of Get Back despite Harrison's guitar being disconnected from its amp by one of the officers. The song ended, Lennon offered his classic comment about hoping they had passed the audition, and the Beatles stepped away from the fans for the very last time. But, during the spring and summer of '69, they somehow patched the cracks, at least temporarily, managing to overcome their personal differences to write and record what was possibly their masterpiece work, Abbey Road, arguably their greatest showcase as composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists. After its release in the fall of '69, the group reluctantly turned its attention back to the unfinished session tapes from January. Against Paul McCartney's wishes, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr inducted the troubling, aptly-named producer, Phil Spector, to breathe his own odd resuscitation into the work.

The project had traveled a long and winding road from its original inception. The working title of the sessions had been Get Back, but by the time the album and accompanying film finally saw the light of day more than a year later, it had shifted to Let It Be, a fitting commentary on where the group found itself in April of 1970. Three number one singles were culled from the sessions, and the album reached the top chart position as well as winning the 1970 Grammy for best soundtrack album. It was a strangely shallow success, as the group had disintegrated by the time these events unfolded. But, as the decades passed, a stubborn appeal lingered from those troubled times, and even the surviving Beatles weren't immune to it. McCartney and Starr reinvented it once again in 2003 with a remixing of the session tapes (minus the Spector tinkerings) in pristine digital form under the humorous title Let It Be...Naked. A second disc included with the LIBN album was a 20-minute composite of some of the most memorable snippets of music and dialog from Twickenham, including just-this-side-of-arguments. This is a fitting distillation for the casual listener, all most would ever care to hear from the unreleased aspect of the sessions. But then there are those of us who find it all endlessly fascinating (I really don't know why), and I am counted among their number. In the late '80's, on vinyl nonetheless, someone actually released a 100-disc bootleg set of the sessions, with enough crushing minutiae to overwhelm even the most ardent listener.

Sitting here today, four decades after it all went down in London, I still find something strangely compelling about that recorded work. Maybe it was the apparent intimacy it gave, the privileged feeling of being in the inner circle. But the hopeless romantic in me can't help but feel that the great attraction is that there was masterful expression in the midst of dire apathy and frustration. There were endless, tedious jams, and more run-throughs of Two of Us than you could count on an abacus, but then there were the breathtaking moments--the unadulterated, pure emotion of The Long & Winding Road, the exuberance of For You, Blue, t
he soulful groove of Don't Let Me Down. And, in the end, I can't help but feel that some wonderful and lasting musical importance was etched in that long-vanished January when I was three.

Fifteen years after the Beatles came down off the roof at Apple, another band with English leanings convened on another bitingly cold afternoon at the end of January to record a Lennon-McCartney composition. The band was Scotland Yard, and I was one of the three members in attendance. There had been four of us - me, Andy, Snook (we jauntily always called him by his last name), and my lifelong best friend, Mike. Now Andy had headed off to college in the even colder environs of upstate New York. We three remaining members were, just like The Beatles 15 years before us, trying to gasp out a last musical moment together before facing the mundane task of getting on with our lives. We were 18, attending the local community college, and each would be heading off on a different path in the years ahead. We had been good friends and bandmates, but our musical confederacy was tenuous at best. We were completely out of touch with contemporary music trends and didn't care. Synchronicity by The Police was the most current influential sound, and Van Halen was about to rewrite the book on guitar-based rock with the release of 1984. But we were still singing Homeward Bound, obscure Peter, Paul & Mary stuff like A-Soalin', and of course our beloved Beatles. Our life as a band had been little more than a pleasant diversion in our senior year as we commiserated with each other about our rejections by the girls we pined for. There had been a smattering of personal appearances, including being the guest band at the Smithsburg High School Senior Tea, itself a wonderfully archaic social event more in step with our parents' high school days than with May of 1983. And, perhaps, our greatest moment had been when a recording we had made of an a cappella, four-part harmony rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, was played over the PA system at the start of a Hagerstown Suns baseball game.

But, on that cold Friday, it was nearly all behind us. Mike, Snook, and I all had open class schedules on Friday afternoons, so we left school that day and headed to Mike's parents' house in the country, dragging our ramshackle array of second-hand guitars and Radio Shack castoffs into Mike's room to create our own pale copy of Abbey Road Studios. We ate hot dogs and then got to the business at hand, recording our rendition of Dear Prudence, Mike on the battered acoustic we struggled to keep in tune, me on the white Mayfair electric I picked up in a pawn shop (it was intended to look like McCartney's Hofner bass), and Snook on the old Hagstrom bass I had loaned him when we formed the band. We plopped a cassette in my little deck, positioned the couple of cheap mikes I had, and ran through the song. Something flowed that day, something incredible that may have been uniquely reserved for that moment in our lives. We played the cassette back, ignoring the tape hiss and boxiness of the sound, and heard ourselves as if we were someone else. It was breathtaking. I say that with humility, as well as the realization that, if I heard it now, I'd probably cringe and lambaste myself for ever thinking it was good. But I believe it was. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a very accurate cover--the Travis picking and dropped-D tuning that are so integral to the song's structure seemed very elusive to me a quarter of a century ago. But the performance was tight, the harmonies crisp........Mike moved us steadily along, Snook adding a decorative bass riff, me the repetitive progression. It was amazing.

That was twenty-five years ago. To the best of my knowledge, we never played together again. Snook and I tinkered around until about 1986, but never did much. The last time I ever saw him was in '87, when he spent a night at my place, but I don't think we even picked up the guitars. The year before, he had given the Hagstrom back to me, and the neck reeked of his after-shave lotion for about five years. I finally ended up giving the guitar to a missionary visiting my church, and it wound up somewhere in Nigeria, doing good work a universe away from that Friday in January of 1984. We had a wonderful time together on that brief visit in '87, I waved goodbye as he drove off, and now we haven't talked to each other in over twenty years. I rarely saw our missing member, Andy, again, but forged a tight friendship and collaboration with another Beatles fanatic named Andy, and we went on to write and record multiple albums together through the 90's. Mike and I wound up playing regularly together for 10-years in a worship group at the church we were both attending, and it always seemed like old times, like when we were 14 and sang Simon & Garfunkel in my room at night, and called ourselves the Streetlights because that was the only illumination spilling through the window. But Scotland Yard has all but vanished from my mind, and I only occasionally find myself thinking of the old band when I watch Sherlock Holmes and he is enlisting the aid of the police.

Now, I find myself in another January, 40 years since The Beatles played on the roof, and 25 years since Scotland Yard recorded Dear Prudence. Mike and I still talk about the recording, but nobody knows where the cassette ever got to. It's very late at night now, as I sit in my wife's office, and the day when we made beautiful sounds on a primitive cassette deck seems eons removed. In the corner of the room is a digital 8-track with about a quarter of an album I'm writing and recording already finished and stored on the hard drive. It's a collection of praise music, some I penned 15 years ago, others from this new and strange season of life. It's 2:00 wife is asleep in the room above me, the kids down the hall. Even the cats have sacked out. I have to head off to bed for a token five hours, then drag back into the office. At 43, I find myself wishing for the kind of January sessions the past has held. I was going great guns on my album in the fall, even overdubbing exotic things like my grandfather's banjo, acoustic guitars with Celtic tunings, and Irish tin whistles, but now the drudgery of life has draped itself over my creativity. The music is in there, just like it always was, but now it's all but obscured, and I have to find a way to pull it out. I can only hope that, like the Liverpool lads in '69 or the Yard in '84, this version 2009.1 of me can flow in the creativity like I once did. I want to pull something out of this January that is worth listening to next month, and two years from now, and when I'm 64. The longer I live, the more I feel like my life is a series of sessions. You strap on the guitar, turn on the recorder, ramble and meander and drift down streams of sound, and hope that something wonderful, and meaningful, and life-affirming comes pouring out. I want to remember the joy and purpose of the day we laid down that perfect take, and I want to infuse that back into the draggy, wearied life I find myself trudging through far too often. And some day, if I ever get the energy to rummage through the garage, I want to move heaven and earth to find that cassette.....